When fresh crabs came knocking at my door

I’ve lived in Japan for a little over 5 months now. As I’ve slowly and shakily grown acclimated to life in this strange and unfamiliar country – and somehow managed to survive one curve ball after another – I thought that I’d finally arrived at a point where nothing else in this country could surprise me.

Turns out, as is so often the case, I was silly to assume that.

This past Sunday, as I was just finishing up preparing dinner, I heard a knock on my door – a delivery from the post office. My mom had told me a week prior that she’d sent me a box of Christmas presents, so I assumed her box had arrived. I signed the receipt and the delivery man handed me a large Styrofoam box – I thought it strange that my mom chose to send the gifts in Styrofoam, but I didn’t think much of it. I carried the box into my apartment, excited to take a peak at the presents inside.

But instead of finding an assortment of gifts wrapped in Christmas-themed paper, when I opened the box I came face to face with a pair of frozen, beady-eyed crabs!

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After overcoming my initial shock, I realized that the delivery was not a mistake – these were indeed my crabs.

Because, you see, about 3 weeks ago I’d ordered them myself.

So, let’s rewind to 3 weeks prior: the day I noticed a curious new flyer in the teachers’ room that had a large crab drawn on the front. (My desk in the communal teachers’ room at the elementary school I work at is located next to the cabinets where staff members often post various announcements and events for others to check at their convenience.)

IMG_7774The sign reads: “It’s crab season! 1 is 800 yen. The better the quality the higher price. For those who want to order, please tell Mrs. Yamada (name changed for confidentiality) your address and how many you want to order.”

To give a little background info as reference, Mrs. Yamada is from Tottori prefecture, which is located along the Sea of Japan. Tottori is famous for its adult male snow crab, known as Matsuba-gani, which is caught between November and early March. Apparently, the prefectural Matsuba Crab PR Committee even sets the 4th Saturday in November as ‘Matsuba Crab Day’ and holds an annual event at the docks of Tottori City and Iwami-cho.

Now, I’m no expert on crab – I think I’ve only eaten it once in my life. And even if crab is on the menu, I never order it, since it’s just so darn expensive. I mean, why would I pay $32 for soft shell crab with just enough meat to satisfy me for the night, when I could be spending that amount on groceries for an entire week?

But 800 yen (about $8) for a WHOLE crab? And from a prefecture that’s known to have some of the best fresh crab Japan has to offer? That sounded like a pretty good deal to me.

I messaged two other JET’s who live in my apartment building and asked if they’d be interested in splitting a few crabs with me. They were, as I expected, and we agreed to split two between the three of us. I gave Mrs. Yamada my address and my order and she gave me a smile, a nod, and that was it.

Now, fast forward to last Sunday, when I opened up the Styrofoam box to find the crabs instead of presents. Not only did I have absolutely no idea what to do about them, I was also worried that they’d defrost, come back to life, and start crawling around my apartment while I took refuge on top of my loft bed.

I frantically called one of the JET’s who’d agreed to order the crab with me. Luckily, he was home, and rushed up to my apartment with a large stew pot which we then filled up with water. While we waited for the water to come to a rolling boil, we looked up articles online about how to cook crab, since neither of us had ever attempted to boil one whole before.

Once the water was ready, we lifted the crabs out of the box with a serving spoon and dropped them into the pot. We cooked them for a little less than 20 minutes.

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Once the crabs had turned a deep red color, we assumed that they were ready to eat. We  put the cooked crabs in the fridge, since by then it was too late to eat them right away.

The following evening, we brought out the crabs, melted some butter with garlic and parsley and had a delicious meal!

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The meat was delicate and super flavorful – it was even a little sweet, which I hadn’t expected. And the texture was so soft and tender that it melted in my mouth with every bite. My friends and I picked the legs clean; there was enough meat in the two crabs to fill the three of us. At the end of the night, we all agreed that the experience was a success. Though it was a bit stressful overall, I think it was well worth the effort.

But next time I eat crab, I’m definitely planning on ordering it at a restaurant – I’d rather not have my crab surprise me at my doorstep again in the future.

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“Whale Day”

Japan has been hunting whale for centuries – for food, and also for the sake of the practice, which has long been an integral part of Japanese culture. In the last few decades though, Japan has faced quite a bit of criticism from abroad (and from its own citizens) over whale hunting, due to the rapid decline of endangered whale species in surrounding waters. Though whale hunting has decreased dramatically since the 1960’s, the practice still continues: certain species are illegal to hunt, but a few, like the minke whale, are not deemed an endangered species and are still hunted on occasion for their meat and distributed throughout Japan. Which, in effect, is how whale ended up on every lunch tray in every junior high and elementary school in Minoh on a sunny Monday afternoon.

Yup, you read that right – whale on every plate.

Once a year, all of the junior high and elementary schools in Minoh serve whale for lunch. Affectionately deemed “whale day” by my fellow JET English teachers, I’ve been anticipating this strange and mildly concerning event for weeks now, unable to fathom the idea that the city would be serving whale to its students for lunch. Yet, sure enough, Whale Day arrived – along with enough whale meat to feed a city’s worth of kids.

Because of dietary restrictions, I don’t eat the lunch that my elementary school provides daily for teachers and students, so I wasn’t able to taste the whale myself. But, luckily, I was able to sneak a few pictures of my fellow teachers’ trays before they were claimed.(There’s no way I’d let Whale Day pass me by without at least taking a photo or two!)

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On the menu: soup with carrots, konnyaku, daikon, and seaweed simmered in a dashi broth, rice with dried seaweed, a carton of milk, and deep fried whale meat

I also asked a few other JET’s what the meat tasted like. They described it as “tough” and “gamey” – much more like red meat than fish. One person said that it tasted similar to deer. Overall, everyone agreed that they didn’t dislike it, and wouldn’t decline a second helping if offered, but weren’t blown away by the taste or the texture. Nor was anyone interested in searching after whale meat again in the future.

IMG_E7745At the time, I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to sample a piece, but after hearing my friends’ reports – and after looking at these pictures again – I think it’s safe to say that I’ve gotten over my disappointment.

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A (long overdue) visit to Salunpowaku

When I found out that I’d be living in Minoh, the first thing I Googled while researching the city was “cute cafe’s.” (True story.) And Cafe Salunpowaku happened to be the top result.

Browsing past reviews on Cafe Salunpowaku – all of which were overwhelmingly positive – I discovered that the cafe not only prides itself on its use of all-natural, organic ingredients, but also specializes in gluten-free, vegan cuisine. Veganism isn’t as widespread in Japan as it is in the States; in fact, I’ve heard from a few ex-Vegans that practicing Veganism is nearly impossible in Japan. Gluten-free products, too, are extremely hard to come by in Japan. I couldn’t believe my luck – I’d stumbled upon perhaps one of the very few all natural, 100% vegan cafes in Osaka. And it just happened to be less than a minute away from Minoh station!

I originally planned to visit Salunpowaku the week I’d arrived in Minoh, but I’d slightly underestimated just how hectic getting adjusted to life in a brand new country would be. Salunpowaku slid down my list of priorities, as things like “figure out how to apply for a credit card” and “how to unlock bike without key??” took its place.

But after finally settling into my apartment, and after unlocking my bike, I finally found the time to make the long awaited trip to Salunpowaku.

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With the help of Google Maps, I found my way to the front of the cafe – a friendly sign with the menu (declaring its vegan and allergen-free meal options with pride) greeted me at the front entrance. I could easily tell from the sign that I’d arrived at the right place.

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My friend and I visited the cafe around 10am, so a little too early for lunch, unfortunately. We asked for their drink menu instead and were pleased to see a diverse selection of beverages available, from herbal teas to hand-drip coffee, to lattes steamed with organic, non-GMO soy milk.

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Upon the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered the 豆乳よもぎオレ, or the soy milk yomogi au lait. Yomogi is an herb made from the Japanese mug wort plant and is known for its distinct, vibrant green color. My friend ordered the strawberry black herb tea. Both of our drinks were brought to our table on little wooden trays with flowers painted on the surface, which I thought was a lovely touch!

At first, I didn’t want to taste my drink – it was too pretty to ruin! But I’m glad I did, because the flavor was even better than the appearance. Everything about the drink was perfectly balanced – the bitterness from the yomogi, the frothiness of the milk, even the temperature. There was a counter near the tables with little jars of brown sugar and syrup, but the drink was flavorful enough on its own to not need additional sweetener. Overall, the au lait was a light and refreshing mid-morning treat that I strongly debated ordering again.

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I ended up not ordering another, but I definitely plan to during my next visit. And I’ll be sure to go during lunch time, so I can sample their brown rice chickpea curry (which I could smell simmering in the kitchen, by the way, and it smelled incredible!).

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For anyone who happens to be in the Osaka area and is interested in visiting this cafe for a meal or a freshly brewed beverage, here’s the link to the address on Google Maps. I highly recommend Cafe Salunpowaku to all – vegan or not!

Preparing for my first winter in Osaka (on a budget)

I was born and raised in sunny southern California – where the weather is about 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, year round. In January, the temperature can drop to the mid 50’s, but mid 50’s is about as low as it’ll go. So, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never experienced a real winter before. And when I say real winter, I mean a below 30 degrees F kind of winter, a winter that turns stepping outside into a brave and daring feat – a winter I am grossly under-prepared for… But since I’m living in Japan now, that’s just the kind of winter I’m about to face.

December has only just arrived, and the temperature in Minoh has already begun to plummet. My 8 minute stroll to the bus stop is a challenge already, even with a heavy coat. And a scarf. And gloves.

But, luckily for me – and for the millions of other Osaka residents about to brave an unforgivable winter, Japan has found ways to make these next few bone-chilling months bearable, and I have made it my goal to take advantage of as many of these warmth-inducing solutions as possible.

The first task on my survival checklist was to redo my wardrobe, since all of the clothes I’d brought from home were intended to be worn in an Osaka-n summer, not winter. But, I’m on a teacher’s budget – restocking my closet with a brand new wardrobe wasn’t a possibility. And that’s how I discovered Heat Tech.

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Heat Tech is a collection by UNIQLO – a chain of affordable clothing stores in Japan. Heat Tech’s under armor is made from a durable fabric that supposedly retains heat really well. I’d heard positive reviews from several coworkers, so I decided to buy a few articles for myself. And I’m glad I did! The material is surprisingly thin, it’s light, and most importantly, it keeps me warm. And it’s cheap! A long sleeved crew neck T-shirt cost me less than $10.

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Though my pair of “ultra warm” leggings have been a big help so far, fabric too has its limits. Clothes can only help retain so much heat, and there are some body parts that need a little more warmth than others. And that’s where these lovely little packs come in:

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I got this particular pack of body warming stickers for 100 Yen from a local Daiso, but I’ve seen them stocked at nearly every supermarket and discount store around, often conveniently displayed at the front entrance. All you do is unwrap a package, peel off the back, and stick it anywhere on your body for instant heat. To my surprise, I could still feel a bit of heat from a sticker nearly an hour after I’d peeled it. No idea how that works, but I’m not complaining.

Next – food: I can’t talk about winter without at least mentioning food.

I could go on and on about seasonal winter foods in Japan – nabe alone deserves its own blog post – but I’ll stick with the two winter-friendly snacks that have helped me survive on a budget.

The cheapest, and most abundant, warming winter snack I’ve found is oden at conbinis (convenience stores). Oden, also known as Japan’s traditional winter fast food, is a stew of various ingredients simmered in dashi broth. Ingredients range from potatoes, to skewered meat, to acorn jelly. At conbinis, a large food warmer sits at the front counter, where customers can help themselves to individual oden ingredients – each about 100 Yen. Sometimes, conbinis will have weekly specials that lower prices to 50 Yen!

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Though a little pricier than oden, my most favorite cold weather treat is definitely the 焼き芋, or roasted sweet potatoes. Japanese sweet potatoes are a little different from the sweet potatoes you buy in the states. Japanese sweet potatoes have a purple skin and creamy yellow insides. I think they’re also smoother in texture and a little sweeter than U.S. sweet potatoes.

Like oden, they’re everywhere – and they’re always warm. Each sweet potato is fresh and sweet, just the right amount of soft, and quite filling for less than $2 a piece. I’d say that one could work well as a meal by itself. They’re usually near the front entrances of supermarkets, kept hot in a warmer or on a bed of charcoal, often wrapped in individual brown bags. Kind of like this:

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Yet another cheap, and quick, option for those in search of relief from the chilly outdoors are vending machines – now well-stocked with tons of hot drinks. In the summer, all of the drinks were cold, but as the temperature began to change, vending machine selections changed too.

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I’d say that 100 Yen is not a bad deal for a cozy beverage (or a can of corn consomme soup!). Sometimes, I buy a drink just to act as a hand warmer, when I don’t have my nifty body stickers with me.

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And finally, the main reason I’ve been able to survive the cold – my air conditioner, which as I was overjoyed to learn, is also a heater.

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I was planning on buying a separate heater for my apartment, which are pretty expensive, but a friend who has been living in Japan for two years now informed me that my air conditioner should have heating functions too. So after work that day, I attempted to decipher my remote control. And sure enough, hidden in the left hand corner, I recognized one of the kanji characters for heat – 暖. (In Japanese, 暖かい means warm.) So, if you ever find yourself needing to operate the dual air conditioning-heater unit in a Japanese apartment, look for 暖房 (pronounced danbou) on your remote control.

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Another cool thing I discovered as I was deciphering the cryptic maze that is my remote control is the timing function. All I have to do is set a certain number of hours, and my heater will start up automatically when that number of hours has passed. I set it to start about 30 minutes before I arrive back from work so that I’m greeted by a cozy, heated apartment right when I step inside.

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I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the next 3 freezing months, but I will admit that Japan does a pretty good job at trying to make the wintery season – almost – bearable. I might as well enjoy my ready-to-eat perfectly cooked sweet potatoes while I can.

My first Thanksgiving in Japan

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – not only because you get to spend an entire day with the people you love preparing an absurd amount of delicious and terrifyingly fattening dishes, but you get to eat it all afterwards too! And there’s nothing I like more than a plate piled high with buttery, high blood pressure-inducing, marshmallow-y sweet potatoes.

I’ve looked forward to Thanksgiving every year ever since I was a child, for all of the reasons listed above and more, but this year as the holiday approached, I realized that I was dreading it. Because this Thanksgiving would be the first spent away from my family… (and without a turkey.)

Though I tried to ignore it, the thought of Thanksgiving lingered in the back of my mind all throughout November. I still wanted to celebrate my favorite holiday, but I had no idea how I’d possibly manage a proper Thanksgiving celebration in my tiny apartment the size of a walk-in closet, with a kitchenette equipped with little more than a blender, a tea kettle, and a few pots and pans. A 40 pound turkey – which, by the way, are nearly non-existent in Japan – was out of the question.

But luckily, I found a few other fellow JET’s who were willing to give Thanksgiving in Japan a shot, despite the fact that our living arrangements were not conducive to preparing a feast. Though our celebration wouldn’t be as traditional, extravagant, or as gluttonous as we were used to, we decided it couldn’t hurt to make an attempt. We agreed to have our own version of a Thanksgiving luncheon, even without a turkey and canned cranberry sauce.

Since the luncheon was going to be held in my apartment, on Thanksgiving morning I stopped by Daiso and purchased a few fall-themed items, including fake red-orange maple leaves, a plastic wreath, and purple grapes made of wax, to decorate my little coffee table and make the space under my loft bed a bit more festive. With a bit of arranging and the help of a floral-scented candle (also from Daiso), I managed to ready the “dining area” for our Thanksgiving feast.

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Each of us planned to contribute something to the luncheon, kind of like a potluck. So in honor of my adoration of sweet potatoes, I made mashed Japanese sweet potatoes, cooked with ginger and coconut milk. My friend prepared a salad with spinach, walnuts, apples, and fresh persimmons (which are in season in Japan right now). Another brought cheese from the local high-end grocery store, along with a baguette and fancy jam, and another brought bottles of red wine. And in place of a turkey, I roasted a few chicken breasts with a sprig of thyme – which I’d say is close enough, right?

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Though our luncheon looked nothing like the Thanksgiving feasts we’ve grown accustomed to in the States, we had more than enough food to fill the four of us – I’d say that makes for a successful celebration. But above all, on top of the satisfying meal and impressive cheese spread, we got to celebrate it together – which, in the end, is the most important and worthwhile part of Thanksgiving after all.

Of course, I missed my family immensely all throughout the day, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to celebrate it with them next year, but I’m grateful to have been able to enjoy my first Thanksgiving in Japan with lots of good food and with people who have helped make my experience in Japan thus far a positive one.

Where to find nachos in Minoh

The farewell dinner at my final JET orientation in Los Angeles was Mexican food – tacos, chips and salsa, and churros for dessert. Enjoy it now, the coordinator said to us, since you’ll probably be without Mexican cuisine for a while. And she was right; good Mexican food – or any Mexican food at that – is nearly impossible to come by in Japan.

But after feasting on fajitas at the Mexican fiesta in Umeda last month, my fellow JET’s and I made it a goal to find decent Mexican food in the area.

And that we did – with La Costa.

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About a 15 minute walk from my apartment and 3 minutes from the main train station, La Costa is the only restaurant in Minoh serving up authentic Mexican cuisine. Some of the popular menu items include soft tacos with handmade corn tortillas, chicken fajitas with stir-fried bell peppers straight off a grill, and piping hot nachos topped with plenty of jalapenos. I never thought I’d get so excited by the sight of melted cheese.

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The place is run by the owner and one waiter. The owner also happens to be the chef – he cooks every dish himself on order, so the food is always freshly prepared (and with impressive presentation).

And not only is La Costa’s food high in quality, taste, and authenticity, its interior is too. From the tables to the chairs to the posters on the wall, the decorations throughout this tiny establishment make a commendable effort to create an authentic dining experience.

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(We asked if they really do sell tacos for 99 cents on Tuesday – they said no.)

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Honestly, I’d go back to La Costa for the interior alone! (The food is an added plus.)

The prices are a bit expensive for the portion size, but considering that this is the only Mexican restaurant for miles and miles, I don’t mind splurging a bit. And I’m relieved to know that ready-to-use bottles of Cholula hot sauce are only a 15 minute stroll away.

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For directions to La Costa, click here.

To see more photos of La Costa’s food, (since that’s the best part about restaurant reviews right?) here’s the link to their Tabelog site.

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My favorite tiny farm

Everyday on my stroll to and from the bus stop, which is about a 7 minute walk from my apartment, I pass by a random little farm in someone’s backyard.

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And walking past the farm is always the best part of my daily commute.

I don’t know who lives there, and I don’t know what’s being grown – I have no idea what it’s even doing in the middle of the neighborhood. Back in the States, it’s not too common to find random rows of produce growing along the street.

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But I don’t really need to know why it’s there – I’m just happy I stumbled upon it in the first place. No matter how rushed I am in the morning, or how tired I am in the evening after a long day at work, this little garden plot never fails to brighten my mood.

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(Also, can anyone tell me what kind of flower these are?)

English for Japanese 3rd graders: cookies and cola

English education in Japan usually starts in 5th grade, but Minoh – the city where I’ve been assigned to teach – has their students taking English classes as early as 3rd grade. Minoh even created their own English curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders, since there is no official designated textbook for students younger than 5th/6th in Japan.

So, I’m lucky – all of my classes for 3rd through 6th grade are written out in Minoh’s English textbook. Every lesson for the 45 minute period includes the topic/subject, expressions related to the topic, and target vocabulary words. It also includes a detailed schedule for activities, with time estimations and everything.

Every lesson has a similar structure. First, the teacher (either me, the other English teacher I work with, or the homeroom teacher ((yep, there are 3, sometimes 4!, teachers in the class at the same time)) greets the students, asks them the date, what the weather’s like, and how they’re doing. Usually students respond with I’m tired, or I’m hungry, but occasionally we’ll get a response like I am so angry!

Then, it’s phonics time. We’ll review English words that Japanese speakers have trouble pronouncing by saying the words out loud and asking the students to repeat them back to us multiple times. There’s quite a few sounds in English that students don’t know how to pronounce, like r and l and the low i sound, so phonics gives them a chance to improve their pronunciation. And the younger they can get pronunciation down, the better.

After phonics, it’s time for the actual lesson content. We start by either reviewing vocabulary and expressions from the previous week, or we’ll introduce new English words. Topics are drawn out for about 4-5 weeks, so students have an ample amount of time to practice hearing and speaking the target language over a long period of time.

These past several weeks, the 3rd graders have been learning the names of a bunch of desserts, like pudding and cake, as well as drinks. The specific desserts/drinks we’re required to teach are at the top of the lesson plan:

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After reviewing the words and phrases, it’s time for the fun part – games! We play at least one game every class, as a way for students to practice the material, and to keep them active, engaged, and entertained. English isn’t graded in elementary school – it’s more of an elective, like music and home economics. But, it is a graded subject in junior high school, so the intent of elementary English is to ensure students have as high of an opinion of English class as possible. That way, they’ll look forward to continuing their English education after graduating elementary. And playing games is definitely a way to keep their opinion of English high. (Or, neutral, at least.)

This week, we played Lucky Card game. In a nutshell, students get into groups and are given a set of mini vocabulary cards. Each student then picks two cards, shows their neighbor the cards and ask, ‘What do you want? and their neighbor responds, ‘I want_____’ and chooses one of the two cards to take in their own hand. The dialogue continues until the teacher says stop. Then, the teacher picks one card out of the set and calls out the vocab word on that card. Students holding that card get a stamp! (Stamps are a big deal – getting a stamp is probably the highlight of English class for most students.)

IMG_E7387Usually, review and a game or two should take up the 45 minute class. Once the bell rings to mark the end of that period, the students pack up their things, say goodbye, and English is finished for the week.

It isn’t much, but hey as long as the students are learning something – and having fun – I’m happy!

Kitano-Cho: brick houses with fish scales roofs

Kobe is my favorite city that I’ve visited in Japan so far. It’s friendly, approachable, and brimming with an energy I can’t quite describe. One of the things I appreciate most about Kobe is that it not only respects traditional Japanese culture, but pays tribute to its Western cultural influences as well. One of the places in Kobe that is the perfect example of the West/East dynamic in the city is Kitano-cho, which I had the chance to tour on my first trip into the city.

Kitano-cho is a historical district in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, which contains a bunch of foreign residences known as Ijinkan, which were built during the Meiji and early Taishō eras of Japanese history  when foreign merchants and diplomats settled in the district after the Port of Kobe was opened to foreign trade in 1868. Through both exterior and interior design, the Ijinkan provide a beautiful and harmonious display of western and eastern culture by blending the two together.

Originally, there were about 300 houses, but most of them were destroyed or dismantled over time. Today, about 10-20 (the houses open and close sporadically throughout the year) of the former Ijinkan are open to the public as museums. IMG_8967

For its historic and cultural value, in 1980 it was designated under the “Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings” act by the government.

Most of the houses charge an admission fee between 550 to 750 yen, while combination tickets are available to see multiple houses. The houses open to the public include those built for residents from England, France, Italian, and the Netherlands, as well as a house built for the former Chinese Consulate (my favorite by far!).

I wanted to see the insides of several mansions, so I bought a ticket that was about 3000 yen. It seems steep, but I’d say it was well worth the price to see the houses’ interiors, which show how western and eastern culture not only influenced the houses’ architecture, but their residents’ lifestyles too.

Here’s a slideshow of some pictures I took of the district!

 

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And here is the link to another article about the district in case you’re interested in learning more about each of the houses.

When a flower field visited Osaka Station

I still have no idea what the occasion was, but a few weekends ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful, and intricately-organized flower garden above JR Osaka train station. I don’t live in an area where flowers are abundant, so being able walk through fields of fresh flowers in full bloom was a welcome treat. I wanted to share some of the photos I took (though they by no means do the flowers justice). Hope you enjoy! ^_^

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