Why I paid 850 Yen for Mango Soda

If you haven’t heard of Gudetama before, you’re in for a treat. Gudetama – often described simply as “grumpy egg” – has quickly become one of the most popular Sanrio characters in Japan and all over the world, even. First introduced in 2013, this lazy, negative, avid procrastinator of a yolk is known to always be finding an excuse for a few extra minutes of sleep.

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I first learned about him in the States a few years ago when he was first introduced, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Not sure why – maybe it’s because of his hilarious facial expressions, or his adorable tiny arms. Or maybe it’s because I find his sluggish disposition and distaste for physical activity extremely relatable.

Luckily (or, unluckily) for me, a famous Gudetama themed cafe just happens to be located in the heart of Osaka, in the Hep Five building across from Umeda station. So, of course, when I discovered that a cafe dedicated to my favorite character sits only a few stations away, I pushed the destination to the top of my bucket list and forced a few of my friends to go with me.

We arrived at the cafe around 3pm. We had to wait for about 15 minutes outside (usually the wait can be up to an hour on weekends, so we weren’t complaining), but the entrance to the cafe was entertainment enough to make the wait itself enjoyable. Posters of the defeatist little yolk muttering signature catchphrases, like “Pah,” “Ugh,” “Meh,” “I can’t,” and “Seriously, I can’t, lined the entryway, which kept us company as we made our way to the front.

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Gudetama products at the front register.

 

The front desk has shelves of Gudetama-themed products on display – from t-shirts to tote bags to cell phone charms. I had to turn away after a minute though, because I was about 5 seconds from buying up every single key chain in sight.

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After being seated – and after dedicating the first few minutes of our visit to taking pictures of every inch of the room – my friends and I focused our attention on figuring out what to order. I already knew what I wanted – I’d seen several customers at nearby tables sipping soda from these lightbulb-shaped containers with Gudetama’s face plastered on the front and I knew that I had to have my own. I mean, how was I supposed to resist sipping from a lightbulb with Gudetama’s classic facial expression plastered on the front? (A lightbulb which, might I add, also lights up at the push of a button.)

And then I checked the price. 850 Yen for a bottle. Yes, 850 – about $8 in the States. If any other establishment attempted to charge me $8 for artificially flavored soda, I’d leave immediately and probably flip a table or two on my way out the door. But I had to make an exception, as the Cafe knew I would. Because many a die-hard Gudetama fan would pay anything for that light-bulb-shaped container.

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The soda itself was sickeningly sweet and I kind of hated it – pretty sure it was just sparkling water mixed with about 20,000 pumps of mango-flavored syrup. I ended up dumping it out in the sink when I got home.

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Though, I’m not planning on making many more trips to the Gudetama Cafe, because I’d go probably go bankrupt if I did.

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Bean Sprouts for “Self-healing”

I’ve spent these last few weeks settling into my new life in Minoh, which I’ve just recently begun to call home. Beyond Minoh, I’ve taken the train to Osaka city several times, but I’d never gone farther than Namba. Yesterday though, I finally ventured beyond Osaka Prefecture into Hyogo for a day trip at the Kobe port terminal – a go-to destination for tourists, known for its sky tower and a beautiful view of the water (and an unnecessary number of shopping malls).

My friend/semi-tour guide and I wandered through the strip of shops and Italian restaurants and ice cream stands, stood at the edge of the pier and watched the sea. Around noon, probably taken by the smell of fresh pizza dough wafting from the artisan cafe behind us, we decided to search for a place to stop for lunch.

The night before, the two of us had indulged in omurice for dinner – which I highly recommend for all interested in a comforting, and equally gratifying, meal, but not for those interested in trimming their waist line. Our stomachs were still a little tired from a long night of breaking down yolk, ketchup, and rice, so we decided to search for food that would soothe our digestive systems rather than decimate them.

With a bit of Googling, we decided upon a vegan (yes, vegan) cafe called “Modernark,” which labeled itself the self-healing cafe. My friend and I liked the sound of that, so we left the air-conditioned strip, stepped into the humidity, and headed to Modernark, ready for a dose of intestinal cleansing.

Modernark is about 20 minutes away from Kobe Port on foot. Though the weather made for a sweaty commute, the walk itself is simple and straightforward, and makes for a fascinating stroll if you decide to take the detour through NankinMachi, or Kobe’s Chinatown, along the way (which we did).

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Modernark is known for their array of tea options, but they also have a well-rounded, and reasonably-priced, lunch menu. Though, their lunch menu is pretty limited. There were only three options for lunch: a vegan plate with an assortment of seasoned vegetables and brown rice, vegan curry with brown rice, and a burrito (which was also, yes, vegan) with a side of salad.

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“THE SELFHEALING CAFE”

I chose the vegetable plate, because I thought it looked the most interesting of the three choices. The plate came with marinated carrot and cucumber strands, soft tofu with sesame burdock root, fried tofu with bean sprouts and slivered almonds, mashed potato, and salad.

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The vegetable plate at Modernark: 1140 Yen.

After tasting the spread, I’d say it tasted just as… unusual… as its appearance. Though the presentation of the dish reminded me of something I’d receive in a vegan restaurant back in the states, all of the vegetables were coated in seasonings that were strongly Japanese in flavor – sweet, subtle, with an aftertaste of sesame oil.

The flavors weren’t all that new to me. But the textures caught me off guard. I’d say the strangest was the fried tofu and bean sprouts – the sprouts were light and airy, and dripping in a sauce with a taste that I can’t quite explain. The tofu was an experience in itself; chewing on it felt kind of like chewing on white bread that’d been soaking in mayonnaise for a few days. Not that I’ve ever eaten white bread with mayonnaise before…

Though the flavor profile wasn’t anything to rave about, and the textures were a tad questionable, I can say with confidence that I did feel very refreshed and rejuvenated after my meal. The produce was fresh, the spread was well-balanced, and I definitely wasn’t suffering from the same regret I’d experienced the night before after stuffing myself with omurice.

I didn’t have the chance to sample anything else on their menu, but Modernark also had a long list of herbal teas, flavored lattes, and wines. If I’m ever in Kobe again, I’ll be sure to stop by Modernark to sample a few of their drinks – and their vegan desserts too, which the cafe also had quite a few options for. Though, I’m a little hesitant to say their cakes and assorted pastries are conducive to “self-healing.” But hey, who knows… I mean, it is vegan right?

Learning How to Onsen

One of the most common responses I always receive when I ask about recommendations for things to do in Japan is, “have you been to an onsen?”

A trip to an onsen, or natural hot spring, has been on my bucket list for a few years now, but I never had the opportunity to go to a bathhouse during my last visit to Japan in 2015. So, I told myself that as soon as I found a bit of free time after settling in last week, I’d find the closest onsen and finally find out for myself why onsens are such a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike.

Onsens are all over Japan, usually situated in a hotel, inn, or bathing facility. Whether it be in a bath house on the 2nd floor of a shopping mall or in a private ryokan, you can find them in every nook and cranny of the country, from the tip of Hokkaido to the Okinawan islands and everywhere in between. There are two very popular, highly recommended onsens in Minoh – one of which is just down the street from me – but the prices were a bit too high for my pre-first-paycheck budget. (Though, I am planning on checking out every onsen in the city by the end of the year!)

My friend and I opted for a local onsen called Suisyun, which was only about a 10 minute bus ride from our closest stop and a much cheaper option than the much pricier Minoh Onsen Spa Garden. The name, website, and directions were all in Japanese, but we were able to figure out our way there through pictures from online reviews and the help of the Google Maps, as usual.

Upon entering the mall where Suisyun was located, we mounted the escalators and walked down the hall to our right until we reached the doors to the entrance. We took off our shoes – as is expected at onsens country-wide – and placed our belongings in lockers beside the front doors. We watched the people ahead of us walk up to two ticket stations adjacent to the front desks, so after putting away our backpacks we walked up to the stations to buy our entry tickets.

Usually, visitors come prepared with their own towel and toiletries, but you can also use the ticket stations to purchase items like shampoo or a towel or a hairbrush. All you have to do is press the button with the designated label. But my friend and I quickly discovered that making our purchases would not be a simple task because all of the buttons were in Japanese. I can read katakana and some kanji, but not well, so the two of us stood in front of the station attempting to decipher the labels for about 10 minutes. (My friend told me that the onsens he’d been to in the past catered to non-Japanese speaking tourists, but we’d happened to pick a “local” onsen that wasn’t exactly English-friendly. So, if you’re interested in visiting an onsen and have limited Japanese skills, I recommend searching for a place that caters to foreign guests.)

But with a bit of time and patience, and the help of Google Translate, we paid our entry fee and purchased the items we needed and took our tickets up to the front. The lady at the front desk took our tickets and then looked up at us with an uncomfortable smile. She attempted to explain to us that the items we’d bought were already available inside the onsen, so we didn’t need to buy them in the first place. She refunded our money for us, though. We bowed in apology and said “sumimasen” – multiple times. (My first trip to an onsen was not off to a stress-free start.)

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Suisyun’s main lobby.

After receiving our entry wristbands, we finally made our way to the baths. Since onsens are separated by gender, my friend and I were forced to part. I was a little nervous about being by myself. I’d never been in an onsen before, but he reassured me that I’d be alright – it’s just a bath, after all.

It’s just a bath. I repeated, attempting to reassure myself. I’ve taken tons of baths before!

So I nodded and we parted ways; I entered the entrance on the left, he on the right.

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I braced myself – towel and body wash in hand – and stepped inside. I walked into the locker room where other women were either drying off or preparing to enter the bath. That’s when I realized that I had no idea what I was doing.

I glanced at the old women beside me and tried to follow along. When they started undressing, I did the same. I’d never been naked in public before, so undressing all by myself was not an easy task. After taking the key from my locker I walked to the bathing area as fast as I could. But the door to the baths wouldn’t open! So I stood in front of the doors, naked, with an anxious grimace on my face.

One of the workers eventually came up to me and motioned at my wrist – apparently I had to scan the wristband I’d received upon entry to open the door to the bath. I hadn’t even entered yet and I was already mortified…

I scanned my wristband and tip-toed into the bath. Again, I had no idea what to do. There was an older lady using a bucket to rinse her body off with water from a large pot, so I did the same. I casually glanced at the room while washing off, attempting to figure out what my next step would be.

There were three different baths in the main indoor area. I stepped into the bath in the center first, because there were two other women inside and I wasn’t about to enter an empty bath alone. (Later I’d learn that I should have showered first – it’s important to wash down thoroughly before entering a bath for the first time.)

Though my first dip in an onsen was just as refreshing as I’d imagined it to be at first, I only stayed submerged for about 3 minutes because of the water’s scalding, intense heat. Meanwhile, in the middle of recovering from my bout of embarrassment after attempting to enter the onsen, an old woman came up to me, her brow furrowed. She pointed at my head and then started scolding me in Japanese. At first I didn’t understand, but then I realized that she was telling me to put my hair up, which happened to be flailing around freely in the water.

Mortified, I quickly wrapped my hair into a tight bun. I got out of the bath and walked over to the showering area – to shower, since it’s important to shower well before entering and exiting the baths – and to recover from my episode of embarrassment. (Again, if you visit an onsen, please don’t make the same mistake I did! Make sure you ALWAYS tie your hair up – apparently it’s disrespectful and unsanitary to let your hair dip into the bath water, which I obviously had to learn the hard way.)

After tying my hair into the tightest, tiniest bun imaginable and covering my head with my towel, I walked over to a bath that was called “Milky Bath,” because of the water’s off-white color. Again, the water was very very hot, to the point where I started to feel dizzy after less than two minutes.

On top of my low heat tolerance, I was still shaken from getting yelled at by the Japanese lady and I couldn’t help but worry that I was going to end up doing  something else wrong. Needless to say, I had quite a bit of trouble relaxing, which I thought to be pretty ironic.

I eventually gave up and exited the milky water. I returned to the front doors, making sure to scan my wristband this time. I dried off in the locker room with my damp towel, dressed, and returned to the lobby – wet, and slightly disappointed with myself for not having done more research on onsen etiquette in advance.

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Luckily for my mopey self, there was a cafe outside of the bath with dessert and beverage options for customers in need of a cold and refreshing treat to offset the onsen’s boiling temperatures. While waiting for my friend to finish his bath (which he thoroughly enjoyed, by the way) I sat down at the cafe, sipped an avocado smoothie, and tried to process the strangeness of my onsen experience.

 

Though my first trip to an onsen did not exactly relieve my stress, I’m looking forward to trying out another onsen again in the future – after doing a little bit more research on proper etiquette, of course.

Remember, if you ever happen to visit an onsen in the future, make sure you understand the rules carefully before attempting to enter alone! I definitely don’t want you to get yelled at by an elderly Japanese lady too.

 

 

A Hidden Gem on Momiji Street

A hidden gem – that’s the best way to describe Matsumoto Coffee. I’ve been having trouble coming up with words to do the humble artisan coffee shop justice, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to really, but I’ll do my best for the sake of this post.

I tried looking up Matsumoto Coffee’s address on Google Maps so I could link it here, but it turns out that you can’t find Matsumoto Coffee on Google Maps, or anywhere online actually. It’s that hidden.

As long as you know how to find Momiji Street though, you’ll be able to find Matsumoto’s. (Momiji Street is a colorful little alley to the right of Minoh Station – you can’t miss it.)

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“Minoh-ers call this Momiji Street.”

A few minutes walk down Momiji Street and Matsumoto Coffee will be on your left.

From the outside, Matsumoto Coffee’s simple, unadorned exterior doesn’t seem like anything worth pausing for.

There are so many other little cafes and coffee shops in Japan – especially Minoh – I wouldn’t have bothered to stop by Matsumoto’s if it weren’t for my friend’s recommendation.

When I got to the front entrance, I was a little disappointed. My friend had raved about this shop for days. I’d expected to be greeted by a balcony or a garden or vines lining the windows – at least a little something more than a chalkboard sign that says “we offer iced coffee for take out.”

But then, I stepped inside – and I think I might have fallen in love.

It’s not just the way it looks, you can feel that the place special. You feel it in the barista’s smile, in the way the yellow light shines on the bar, in the smell of roasted beans and the taste of freshly brewed coffee on the tip of your tongue. There’s something soft and serene in the air that, like I said, I can’t quite put into words.

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I sat down at the table closest to the door and the barista came up to me immediately. She brought over a box for me to put my backpack in and then served me a cup of iced water. Throughout my visit, she was always quick to serve me, always attentive to my needs even without me having to ask. She took special care to meet the other customer’s requests too, though I only saw two other customers while I was there. (Yes, the two in the picture above.)

After several minutes of attempting to decipher the menu, I ordered a latte. It was the richest, earthiest latte I’ve ever had – each sip was very strong, sharp and full of flavor. The latte came with a tiny cup of simple syrup and a bit of whole milk too, so I could adjust the taste of the coffee to my liking.

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My friend had a cup of one of their special blends. The shop has lots of different blends to choose from, as well as different types of coffee drinks – even an espresso affogato, which is apparently their specialty. The menu had quite a long list of options, which I didn’t take the time to go through in detail, but I do plan to eventually.

Oh, and I did I mention the roaster? That’s the best part.

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Yup, that’s right. There’s a huge roaster at the back that takes up about half the shop. And that’s where you’ll find Matsumoto-san. Yes, the Matsumoto of Matsumoto Coffee!

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You’ll find him siting on a stool in front of the machine, lit cigarette in hand, waiting for the beans to finish roasting.

Sometimes he’ll stand up, walk around, even talk to people. I had the pleasure of saying hello. Next time I visit, I want to start a conversation, even a simple one.

Who knows, maybe if I go often enough, I might even work up the nerve to beg Matsumoto-san to take me on as his apprentice.

Kakigori at Minoh Matsuri

Festivals are super common in Japan, especially during the summer. There’s food, games, and usually a stage area with a constant line of performances. Every July, Minoh has its own festival, apparently to celebrate it’s mascot’s (Yuzuru) birthday. I was lucky enough to have arrived in Minoh in time to attend the festival (and to see Yuzuru open his presents).

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The streets were lined with these lanterns, which say “Minoh Festival.”
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Yuzuru is Minoh’s official mascot! He’s made of Yuzu, a type of citrus fruit that’s produced locally in Minoh. And he’s really cute.

I went to several festivals the last time I came to Japan in 2015 – they’re all pretty similar. Lots of people and lots of fried food. You can play games too, maybe do a little bit of souvenir shopping, but I’d say the highlight of festivals has to be the food. There’s tons of it. AND festivals are the only and place where it’s acceptable to eat while walking, which I made sure to take full advantage of.

You’ll usually see the same type of foods at festivals, like yakitori, karaage, and yakisoba, to name a few. Minoh Matsuri had about ten different stands selling yakitori alone. There were stands featuring foods that I’d never seen before too, like roasted marshmallows, hot cakes, and even Indian curry with naan!

My favorite treat to get at festivals though, is kakigori, which is finely shaved ice with a choice of syrup. (You’ll know a stall is serving it if you see this signature flag.) It’s just ice, so it’s super refreshing, especially in the summer heat – a welcome dose of cool amidst clouds of hot, mildly suffocating yakitori smoke and an endless swarm of sweaty festival-goers 

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There were tons of kakigori stands at Minoh Matsuri – some with different flavors, some with higher prices and larger cups, some with ice cream even – which made picking a stand difficult. I walked through the entire festival ground, attempting to select the best one. I ended up very satisfied with my stand of choice though, because it offered toppings! ^_^

Mine came with mangoes and strawberries, little mochi balls, and condensed milk, all of which I’d never had on kakigori before. By far, the best kakigori I’ve had – and for 350 Yen. I’ll never be able to go back to mochi-and-condensed-milk-less kakigori again – I’ll definitely be searching for that stand at every festival I go to in the future.

*If you’re not in an area with readily available kakigori stands, here’s a recipe I found that you should try! (I know I will.)

Furnishing My First Apartment!

After several Daiso runs, two trips to a Japanese Ikea, and a shopping spree at a second-hand store called Hard Off, I’ve finally finished furnishing my apartment! Like I mentioned before, there’s very little space, but with the addition of storage boxes, foldable furniture, hangers, and quite a few wire racks, I’ve managed to fit and store everything I need – and still have room to walk. 🙂

Here are a few pictures of what my apartment looks like now:

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Arriving in Minoh

On the morning of the 26th, the other JET’s traveling to Osaka Prefecture and I gathered in the lobby of the hotel, ready to start off for our new homes. Suitcases and carry-ons in hand, we followed our guide, Natsumi, to Shinjuku station where we took a local train to Tokyo Station. We had time to spare, so we walked around and picked out bento boxes for lunch.

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My little bento box!

We ate our lunch on the bullet train to Osaka, which was about a 2 and ½ hour ride.

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The view from the train.

It felt nice to just sit and listen to music and look out the window and watch the rice paddies sail by to my right and not have to worry about going anywhere or doing anything after three days full of intense activity. But that period of peace ended when the train arrived at Osaka station – because we all had yet another orientation awaiting us in our new home cities.

 

Orientation in Minoh Day 1

Upon exiting the bullet train, my fellow Minoh JET’s and I were greeted with signs and smiling faces. We met a couple “J1’s” (what we call the first group of JET’S to arrive in Minoh two years ago) and three people from MAFGA – Minoh Association for Global Awareness –  who have been in charge of taking care of JET ALT’s as they attempt to adjust to life in Japan. We’d been in contact with MAFGA for a few months already, so it was exciting to meet them in person.

They drove us from Osaka station to Minoh’s city office where we signed paperwork and documents and went through our contract as employees of the city. By around 4pm, I started to crack from the heat and from the exhaustion and from the overload of information that I was trying to process. But I was able to pull myself together and battle through it. At 5pm, our first day of orientation was over, and we were all taken to our apartments on foot. On our way to our apartments, I got my first glimpse of the city. It’s super cozy, very clean, and there’s a cafe on just about every block. I felt right at home. 

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One of the cafes walking distance from my apartment complex.

We were given our keys and taken to our apartments. When I first saw the inside of mine, my heart dropped a little. I knew the apartment would be small, but it was a lot smaller than I’d imagined it would be. The kitchen isn’t a kitchen at all, it’s more like a sink with a tiny area beside it for the electric stove. The bathroom is also super tiny too – it barely has enough floor space for me to stand. But at the same time, I was happy to see it – because it was mine.

All of my luggage had safely arrived already, which was a big relief. After living out of my backpack for the last few days, it was nice to finally have access to all of my clothes and toiletries and medicine. Everything was in good shape and undamaged too, even my coconut flour. ^_^

Around 6:30 the newly arrived JET’s and a few of the J1’s and 2’s ate dinner together at a restaurant and bar that specializes in chicken. We had unlimited cabbage as an appetizer, lots of yakitori, and plum wine soda. We talked about the schools we’d be attending, what day-to-day life is like, and how to adjust to living in a country that’s not always open to foreigners. Each person had had a different experience during their time in Minoh, but all of the J1’s and 2’s seemed to agree that Minoh was the perfect city to have been placed in. 

Orientation in Minoh Day 2

Since I hadn’t gone grocery shopping yet, I went to the Family Mart (one of many, many convenience stores) across the street from the city office for breakfast. Family Mart is one of the few places to have free wifi, so I sat down at their little sitting area and checked my emails and drank my jelly pouch, while an elderly man next to me stared out the window with a coffee cup in his hands.

At 8:30, everyone met at the city office for the second day of orientation. We went through residence registration and filled out the appropriate forms necessary for creating a bank account. It was a long and complicated process and I signed quite a few contracts that I still have no idea what they were for. I don’t know how I would have survived without MAFGA’s help. How other foreigners manage to do it is beyond me.

At 10:30, MAFGA went through each of the different cell phone and internet contracts that we could choose from – Docomo, Softbank, NTT and JCOM. I ended up choosing the cheapest option with J-COM. After going through the contract stipulations, we moved on to the next presentation on Minoh. We learned more about the city, including general information, its history, and fun things to do in the area as well – like the Onsen garden and waterfall park.

After having lunch at the local mall, we took a bus to the Education Center where we’ll need to log our attendance once we start working, and from there we went to the hospital by car to learn how to make an appointment and how to contact the emergency room, which I hope I’ll never have to do!

At 5, the second day of orientation ended and we returned to the city office. I walked back to the apartment and spent the rest of the evening unpacking.

Orientation in Minoh Day 3

We met at the city office again at 8:30 sharp. We started off our final orientation day with a walk to the bank, where we signed up for our own bank accounts. (Again, no idea how I would’ve figured any of this out myself.) We received an ATM card too and I practiced depositing money into my account. The rest of the day was spent signing up for our cell phone and internet contracts. MAFGA even called representatives from JCOM and NTT to come to the city office so that we could sign up for our contracts in person without having to make the trip to their office. Signing up went smoothly for me, and I found out that the bills would be automatically withdrawn from my bank account, so I’d never have to worry about paying separate bills! (If only it were that simple in the U.S.)

At 5pm, everyone met again at the city office and orientation in Minoh came to an end. The orientation process was long, exhausting, and demanding, but it was well worth the effort because I am officially a registered resident of the city! Now I have about a week and a half left to explore, to rest, and to get adjusted to life in my new home.

Below are a few pictures that I took of the city. Enjoy!

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