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!)
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.
At 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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.)
Usually, 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!
In Japan, convenience stores are called コンビニ、or conbini’s. And unlike convenience stores you find in the States – ie, dingy 7-11’s with a questionable selection of hot dogs on display or the off-name liquor stores you you might see at the corner of an intersection – these conbini’s are always impeccably clean, well-organized, and literally, convenient. They’re fully stocked with every kind of product you can think of, from perfectly hard-boiled eggs, pre-cooked edamame, and vacuum-sealed chicken breasts ready to be sliced up and tossed over a salad, to kitchen and cleaning supplies, to bathroom products and toiletries, you name it. There are even individually packaged white cotton t-shirts for the ever-sweaty salary man.
But, although I am a big fan of hard-boiled eggs that I didn’t have to cook myself, I’d have to say that my favorite thing about conbinis are the drinks.
True, drinks definitely don’t sound as fascinating as the packets of pre-cooked Thai curry in the ready-made-foods aisle, or the essential oils and incense sticks on display next to the ties, but the thing I love about conbini drinks is just how many options there are!
Walk into any store and you’ll find walls stocked with sodas, teas, juices, drinkable yogurts, even fresh-pressed juices. Every conbini usually has the same selection of brands, but I’ve stumbled upon a few that have limited edition drinks too, and one chain even has their own line of much cheaper, store-brand drinks.
By far the most extensive selection is the coffee (though tea comes in close second). There are about a thousand different types of coffee drinks – coffee mixed with half and half, coffee with milk, coffee with milk and sugar, coffee with milk and no sugar, and so on. And of course, there are tons of classic black options too. I can’t say that it compares to the freshly brewed stuff you get at sit-down cafe’s, but for 118 yen each, I’d say they taste pretty good.
And as if walls of canned coffee aren’t enough, there’s also a separate refrigerated section where you can find an even greater selection of lattes, along with lots of different flavored teas, milk-based drinks, and smoothies too.
Every time I stop by a conbini, I make an effort to buy a new drink each time. My goal is to try every single type of drink available! (Well, all except for the carton of straight wheat grass powder.) Considering just how many drinks there are, it looks like I have a long way to go.
Picture a rainy Saturday morning. I’ve just finished getting ready – I washed my dishes after breakfast and started a load of laundry. I’m planning on making a quick trip to Daiso to pick up a few cleaning supplies, like wipes and fabric softener. I have clean the bathroom, buy groceries for the week, and finish up a blog post on my to-do list: your classic, uneventful Saturday. But, as has been a recurring theme for my weekends in Japan, it ended up being the very opposite.
The moment I stepped outside, I came face to face with who I immediately thought to be a member of the Japanese mafia…
He was wearing a long, black robe and, to my horror, a mask – a bright red mask, with menacing eyebrows and an absurdly long nose. A little farther, in the middle of the street, stood a group of three other people dressed in the same black robes and horrid, nightmare-inducing masks.
All I could do was stand, stiff with fear, hoping this masked stranger was not actually a member of a terrorist group, or a hired assassin, or an FBI agent who’d come to arrest me for illegally throwing my trash out at convenience stores… But luckily for me, he was none of those. He simply offered me a nod and then meandered toward the other masked men, who I realized – now that I’d finished overreacting – were laughing and cracking jokes with each other.
Later that day, I eventually learned that the people I’d run into were dressed up for a festival that was happening that night in Minoh called the Tengu Festival, held in honor of Japanese spirits known as tengu.
If you aren’t familiar with what a tengu is, (I definitely wasn’t) here’s an excerpt from its Wikipedia article:
Tengu (天狗, “heavenly dog”) are a type of legendary creature found in Japanese folk religion and are also considered a type of Shinto god (kami) or yōkai (supernatural beings). Although they take their name from a dog-like Chinese demon (Tiangou), the tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has often been humanized as an unnaturally long nose, which today is widely considered the tengu‘s defining characteristic in the popular imagination. Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. Tengu are associated with the ascetic practice of Shugendō, and they are usually depicted in the garb of its followers, the yamabushi.
I read online that Tengu Festivals are widespread throughout Japan in the fall. Most festivals typically include a parade featuring impressive statues, as well as Japan’s classic festival street food. Minoh’s annual festival, though, is actually a little different – when the sun starts to set, men dressed up like tengu gather at a specific marked location. And once the locals have arrived at the same place, these tengu start hitting people! Yes, I’m serious. They run around hitting everyone.
They carry these bamboo sticks with tapered ends and hit anyone they can find on the head – usually, children. Apparently, if a child is hit on the head by a tengu, that child receives lifelong blessings. And women receive good fortune too – supposedly getting tapped by a tengu blesses them with fertility and successful kids.
Of course, I was super fascinated, and a bit horrified, by the thought of kids getting struck by middle-aged men, so at around 5pm that evening I found my way to the location where the tengu were expected to gather. It wasn’t hard – all I had to do was follow the sound of high-pitched screams.
I arrived at the gate, and proceeded to watch one of the strangest events I have ever seen in my entire life.
Exactly as the internet warned, men dressed up in tengu attire started running up and down the street and attacking people of all ages – from toddler to teens to middle aged women – while onlookers simply pointed and laughed and recorded videos on their phones. I too, took lots and lots of videos, which I plan to keep forever in case I’m ever in need of a laugh. (Sadly, I’m not able to upload the videos to the post, but shoot me an email and I’ll send you some!)
The festival was mainly intended for the kids, since they’re supposed to receive the bulk of the blessings, but the most memorable part of the festival was watching the parents, who were either taking pictures of their sobbing children or pushing them, literally pushing them, into the tengu’s path!
Though some children were running from the masked men in terror, other, braver, children walked right up to the tengu, asking – begging even – to be hit on the head. And the tengu were happy to oblige.
I ended up getting hit by a tengu too! It didn’t hurt at all, like I thought it would. But I’m pretty sure that he was going easy on me… I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the other tengu targets woke up the next morning with bruises on their heads.
The festival was short, but it’s become one of my favorite memories in Japan! Not only do I have a new story to tell, but I also have a long line of successful children to look forward to, thanks to a masked stranger and his magical bamboo wand.
Yup, that’s a picture of my wet clothes. They’re clipped to a 100 Yen rack that’s hanging from the curtain rod in my room.
Though I do have a washing machine in my apartment, I don’t have a dryer, so I have to hang up my clothes after I wash them. And according to my fellow apartment-dwelling friends in Japan, they don’t have dryers either. There’s just not enough room in our tiny, 16m2 homes.
At first, I assumed the lack of dryers resulted from a lack of apartment space. But then after a few days of walking around the city, I started to notice that houses (and big houses!) too had clothes hanging from their balconies. So it couldn’t be attributed to space alone.
It’s not just Minoh that happens to be a dryer-less community either – walk around any neighborhood, anywhere in Japan, and you’ll find apartment after apartment, house after house, even some shops and restaurants, with clothes hung over the rails and clipped to standing hangers in the yard.
Japan just doesn’t do dryers. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea.
Not having a dryer has been a difficult thing to get used to. It’s actually been one of the things I’ve struggled with the most in getting acclimated to living in Japan. First, I don’t like the idea of putting my clothes outside. It kind of freaks me out. There are bugs outside! What if a cockroach or a beetle or a SPIDER wandered onto my balcony and found its way into one of my socks and then laid a bunch of eggs inside without me knowing? What if it starts to rain out of nowhere?? Then I’d have to wash my clothes all over again… And I’m not taking that risk! So instead I have to hang up my clothes inside my apartment, on the curtain rod beside my bed.
Another big reason why I’m not a fan of this dryer-less lifestyle is that my clothes get super duper wrinkly when they air dry – especially my cotton T-shirts. Which is hard, because my entire wardrobe is largely made up of cotton T-shirts. I’ve been trying to flatten them out before hanging them on the rack, but it hasn’t been too effective. Technically, I could iron my clothes after they’ve dried, but so far I’ve been too cheap (and too lazy) to buy myself a proper iron and ironing board.
And lastly, hanging up every single article of clothing on my rickety drying rack has not been that enjoyable (socks are the worst!). I’ve heard that hanging clothes is supposed to be soothing, but to me it just feels tedious; I’m used to taking all of my wet clothes out of the washing machine and throwing them into the dryer in less than a minute, and then coming back to a lovely pile of warm, clean, freshly laundered clothes half an hour later. But now living in Japan, I have to wait a good 12+ hours before my clothes are dry enough to take down from the rack and hang back up in my closet.
But hey, I suppose it’s better than nothing, right? My clothes may be wrinkly, but at least they’re clean… Granted, using a washer alone may take some getting used to – and I’ll probably feel the need to write another complain-y post about the subject again soon – but I’m sure that in time, I might even learn to prefer drying my clothes the all-natural way.
In the States, trash is trash. I’d throw my trash into the closest can I found and wouldn’t think twice about it. Sure, I’d try my best to recycle, but if there were no recycle-specific cans available nearby, then I wouldn’t go out of my way to find one…
…which is a big reason why living in Japan is a lot more challenging than I’d thought it would be.
After arriving in Minoh, MAFGA (the organization that facilitated orientation for JET’s and has since been helping me and my fellow English teachers get accustomed to living in Japan) gave each JET about 100 20 liter trash bags, specifically for 燃えるごみ、or burnable garbage. Each city in Japan has their own trash bags, often with the city’s name marked on the front. These are the only bags accepted for disposal on trash days. Minoh’s looks like this:
So yeah, there are multiple trash days. 3 per week to be exact…
And this is where it gets complicated (as if wasn’t already complicated enough!).
Tuesdays and Fridays are the days for burnable garbage – paper, plastic, cardboard, food waste, etc. At first I thought twice a week seemed excessive, since in the states there’s only one pickup day per week, but the time between Fridays and Tuesdays actually feels like ages to me… The difference is that I don’t have a large trashcan outside where I can throw out my bags full of food waste, like I did in the States, so I’ve been forced to keep my trash inside my apartment until I can dispose of it on trash day – banana peels and all.
Every apartment building has its own designated trash collection spot. My apartment’s spot is on the sidewalk along a main street to make it easier for the garbage truck to make a quick stop.
The garbage truck comes promptly by 9am, so it’s important to take the trash out before then. The other day, a sign was posted next to the collection area that reminded people, in aggressively large print, to take their trash bags out before 9am on the appropriate days.
As for un-burnable garbage, that can get a bit trickier: the first and third Wednesday of the month are the days for recyclable plastic bottles, while the second and fourth Wednesdays are aluminum/glass bottle days. (Yeah, I know, I forget all the time.)
For the first few weeks, I didn’t know how to recycle un-burnable garbage, because MAFGA had only given JET’s bags for burnable garbage. I had no idea what to do with all of my bottles, and I didn’t have the guts to ask for help. So I would throw out my bottles at random cans in front of convenience stores. But then I learned that recycling your bottles at convenience stores is actually illegal! There are even outdoor video cameras pointed at the trash cans to scare people off. (So if I end up getting arrested in Japan, it’s probably because I was caught on one of those cameras.)
I wasn’t all that interested in getting arrested, so instead of continuing to break the law, I decided I’d have to figure out how to recycle properly.
On a Wednesday morning, I walked out to the sidewalk where the garbage gets picked up to see how everyone else was doing it. I didn’t see any bags, but I did see several baskets filled to the brim with crushed cans. I figured out that people just bring out their cans and bottles and dump them out into designated bins. (Which is why MAFGA didn’t give us bags for cans.) The bins kind of look like this:
So, I wouldn’t say that I’ve mastered the art of trash in Japan just yet, but I at least know how to recycle my leftover bottles without committing a felony.
The first time I heard the song start playing outside, I immediately thought – ice cream! I’d never seen an ice cream truck in Japan before, but when I heard that signature jingle echo along the street adjacent to my apartment building, I knew it had to be ice cream. What else could it be? I took my wallet out of my purse and was ready to run out to wave down the truck, but by the time I was about to leave my apartment, the jingle stopped – and I assumed I’d missed the truck. Disappointed, I put my wallet back and mourned my lack of ice cream.
The next day, though, the jingle started playing again, exactly at 5pm. It made sense – the ice cream man must drive through the neighborhood at 5 everyday since students usually start coming home from school around then. Again, the jingle stopped before I had time to find cash and slip on proper shoes, but I told myself that tomorrow, I’d be waiting outside by 4:55.
I was so excited about the idea of getting ice cream the following day that I even mentioned the truck and the jingle to my Japanese friend. I wanted to know what the truck looked like, where it stopped, and most importantly, what kind of ice cream it carried.
But my friend had no idea what I was talking about.
Because apparently, there are no ice cream trucks in Japan.
The jingle that I’ve been hearing everyday at 5pm is actually the 市町村防災行政無線放送 (local government disaster administration wireless broadcast), or disaster wireless for short, according to a Japan Times article I read after my hopes and dreams for an iced Popsicle were shattered. The song is a daily test of an emergency broadcast system that’s meant to alert citizens in the case of an incoming disaster.
The closest thing to an ice cream truck in Japan is the (Yaki-Imo) truck, which serves freshly baked sweet potatoes. This truck only comes around in the winter time though, so it looks like I won’t be running out to meet any treat-delivering vehicles anytime soon. And though I love potatoes, they’ll never be able to satisfy an ice cream craving… I suppose while I’m in Japan, I’ll need to get used to finding my ice cream elsewhere.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.)