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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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.

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?)

Japan just doesn’t do dryers

IMG_7438Yup, 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.

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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.

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Emphasis on the might.

 

Relearning how to take out the trash

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:

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See the long list of rules at the bottom?

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.

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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.

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Ah, lovely pictures of garbage.

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:

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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.

Forever Indebted to Cycle Seven

Minoh is a dangerous place for pedestrians. You always have to be on your guard. Because at any moment, a young mother, balancing a toddler in the seat behind her and a newborn baby in the front, could come shooting past you without a word. If not a young mother, then students coming home from school, or an elderly woman with the ingredients for that night’s dinner piled up in her basket. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE rides a bike here. It’s not hard to see why – the city is small but spread out, the streets are flat, there’s bicycle parking on every corner, and peddling groceries home in a nifty basket is a lot easier than walking them home.

By the first week that I’d arrived in the city, I knew that I wanted a bike. First, because owning a bike is convenient, and Second, because I’m lazy and not a fan of walking long distances in the sun. I ended up buying the cheapest one I could find – about 12600 yen, or $113.

Being the cheapest on the market, my bike is nothing to rave about with its rock hard seat and squeaky brakes. But it’s durable overall, has a basket, AND comes with a lock already attached to the back wheel. Kind of like this:

220px-Bike_O_Lock_JapanAll you have to do to unlock the bike is insert a tiny key and turn the key to the right. To lock the bike, you close the ring around the wheel and the key will snap out. Convenient right?

That’s what I thought too. Well, up until yesterday afternoon, when I realized I lost the key to the lock…

So here I am. It’s 2pm, nice weather out. I’m ready to take a quick trip to the grocery store for cucumbers. (Because you can’t have kabocha salad without cucumbers.)

I walk out to the bicycle parking area beside my apartment. I’m thinking, I’ll be in and out of the store in 20 minutes tops. I open my coin purse, where I keep both my house key and my bicycle key. But there is no bicycle key in my coin purse.

I don’t believe it. I close the purse. Open it. Search through the coins. Close it, open it again, search again – to no avail. The key is not in my coin purse.

I ran back up to my apartment and began rummaging through my belongings, not yet ready to admit that I’d been careless enough to lose one of my most important possessions. I searched through every nook and cranny of every single bag that I owned (even the bags that I haven’t touched since arriving in Minoh) and even scanned the sewers surrounding my apartment building, just in case. Still, nothing. With a heavy heart, I forced myself to come to terms with the fact that I’d lost the only key to my bicycle.

So, there I was – squatting beside a sewer, key-less, and basically bike-less, since there’s no way to get another set of keys. And all I’d wanted was to buy a cucumber! (But life is never that simple, is it?)

As is my immediate response to having no idea what to do in a given situation, I pulled out my phone and typed my problems into Google. ‘I lost my bike key in Japan.’

To my (pleasant) surprise, I discovered that many people have faced that exact same dilemma.

There were plenty of results – even detailed, in-depth articles dedicated to the topic. Though, the first two that I read weren’t all that helpful. In short, they told me that I needed to remove the lock from the bike myself if I ever wanted to be able to ride it again – which would require multiple types of screwdrivers, a wrench, and the cover of nightfall (since a random foreigner trying to break a lock off a bike in the middle of the day looks a tad suspicion), all of which I did not have.

I went back and clicked on a different article. The author of that one explained that someone else has taken off the lock for him – he’d lost his bike key in a public lot and the parking attendant had broken off the bike lock for him with a clamp. Well, I definitely did not have a readily available parking attendant with a clamp to come to my rescue. But after reading the article, I was reminded of someone who might be able to help.

About a 2 minute walk from my apartment is a bicycle shop called Cycle Seven. I pass it on my way home everyday and always see the same repairman sitting at a tiny table in the middle of shop staring intently at his computer. I’d never stopped by before, (since there was never any reason to) but it was always comforting to know that in the case of a flat tire or faulty break situation, help was only a block away.

I doubted that I’d be able to coerce the repairman to follow me to my apartment so he could fix my bike there. So my only option was to transport the bike to him.

I wasn’t particularly ecstatic about the idea of carrying my entire bike up the street alone, but I had no other choice. I went back to my apartment to get my bicycle registration, just in case anyone tried to accuse me of stealing. (Not that I’d blame them – I mean, if I saw a poorly dressed foreigner lugging a locked bicycle down the sidewalks of Minoh, I’d find it questionable too.) And then I returned to the parking lot, grabbed onto my bike’s handles with my left hand and lifted the seat with my right, and began making my way towards Cycle Seven.

The bike was heavy. Really heavy. I had to take a break every seven or eight steps. I also had to appear as nonchalant as possible, so during my breaks I’d casually lean on the seat and hum and nod at passing cyclists.

Thank goodness Cycle Seven is super close to my apartment – I made it to the shop in less than 10 minutes, even with multiple breaks. The second closest shop is about 2 miles away… lugging my bicycle all the way there would’ve taken me an hour at least.

I walked into the shop and got straight to the point – I’d lost my bicycle key. The repairman nodded. He’d probably dealt with the same problem multiple times. He told me he’d have to remove the lock from the bike and asked if I was okay with that and I said go for it (in more formal words of course).

He brought my bike into the shop, whipped out a pair of clamps, and broke the lock in one snap. He asked me if I wanted the same type of lock for 1200 yen and I said sure, so he brought out a new lock and fit it on the back wheel. He also checked my breaks and filled my tires with gas after he finished with the lock. Even with the additional work, the whole process lasted less than 3 minutes. I was prepared to pay him extra for his services, but after all that, he only charged me 1200 yen – the price of the new lock. I wanted to tip him, but there’s no tipping in Japan. So I gave him as sincere of a thank you very much as I could express, wheeled my bike out of the shop, and rode to the grocery store to finally buy my cucumbers.

Hopefully, I won’t need to go back to Cycle Seven anytime soon, but if I do, I definitely plan on bringing Mr. Repairman a thank you present for his quality customer service.

First week of classes – my jikoshoukai

Ah, the jikoshoukai… Ask any JET about theirs and they could probably recite it to you by heart, word for word. At least I know I could (though I wouldn’t want to) because I’ve given mine 16 times as of today, so I’ve just about memorized every single slide.

In English, jikoshoukai (自己紹介) means self-introduction. Every new JET is expected to give a jikoshoukai, or introductory presentation, to each class during their first week, as a way for students to get to know more about their new English teacher and his/her cultural background.

Every JET’s intro is different, of course, but intros tend to include the same content: interesting facts about said JET`s home country/home town, pictures of friends and family members, hobbies, interests, future plans, etc. My self-intro included all of those, and I also talked about going to UCLA and what I studied since I just graduated in June.

I included lots of quiz-type questions throughout the PowerPoint to keep the students engaged, like how old am I? and What is my favorite Japanese food? (the students were always surprised to hear that the answer is kabocha) and How old is my little brother? etc. At the end, I gave out the no. 2 pencils I`d bought at Target months ago to students who were first to answer the questions correctly.

My presentation has usually lasted about 25 minutes, which is only about half of the class period, so there’s plenty of time for students to ask me questions afterwards. I’ve gotten the same questions for the most part – favorite color, favorite actor, favorite animal, favorite sport… But I’ve had a few particularly memorable ones too. Like, What would you do if you were President? or What`s your favorite kind of building? or Do you have a favorite train? or How big is an American hamburger in comparison to a Japanese hamburger? And my favorite question by far was: Do you prefer animes that were released in the Heisei Period (the current era in Japan) or the Showa Period? (Sadly, I was unable to provide an answer to that question, to the student’s dismay.)

Today was the last day that I had to present my self-introduction, which I admit I’m pretty happy about. Though I’ve enjoyed telling my new students a little bit more about myself and where I come from, it’ll be nice to not have to explain that my university is called UCLA, and not Mr. Bear University, for the 17th time.

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Why I took a taxi to work

I`m assigned to two elementary schools: the first school, which I wrote about in a previous post, is my main school, or the school where I`m officially based. I work at that school Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, but on Mondays and Tuesdays I`m an assistant at a different elementary school.

I`d been at my base school for the last few days, including Monday. On Tuesday, I was scheduled to go to the secondary school to introduce myself to the other teachers. So, Tuesday morning, I left my apartment at 7:30am. The school is less than 5km away, but I wanted to get there early with the hopes of making a good first impression at a new workplace.

Walking to the bus stop, I checked Google Maps again to confirm the route. The day before, my supervisor told me to take a bus that starts at Minoh`s main train station​, but that station is about a 15 minute walk from me. On the other hand, Google Maps told me that there was a different bus I could take instead, only a few minutes’ walk from my apartment, that supposedly stopped right next to the school. I`d never heard of the bus before, but being the lazy self that I am, I decided to try taking it. Besides, I thought, Google is always right.

So the bus was scheduled to come at 7:52am.

7:52am arrived. The bus did not. I waited. A minute passed. Then another. By 7:55, I began to accept the fact that the bus was not coming and that relying on an unfamiliar route had probably been a huge mistake.

I stood there, stranded at the bus stop, with no idea how to get to school. And I was supposed to be in the teacher`s room in 20 minutes!

Heartbeat accelerating, a prayer beneath my breath, I checked Google Maps again for alternate routes.  One of the first options said I could take the next bus at that same station. It was either that, or run to a stop 10 minutes away and risk the possibility of missing that bus too. So I waited at the same stop and got on the next bus to show up.

After tapping my pass and finding a tiny corner of space to stand, I checked Google Maps again – and realized that the routes had completely changed. In other words, I had no idea which stop to get off at.

I spent the ride pressed up against the window, in a bus filled past maximum capacity, wondering how I was going to get myself out of this one. At the fourth stop, I decided to get off.

After exiting the bus, I checked Google Maps, yet again, only to discover that I was still more than 3 kilometers from school – and there weren`t other buses coming to save me anytime soon.

By then, it was 8:20 – I had to be at school 5 minutes ago.

Id managed to stay calm up until that point, but I finally started panicking. I paced up and down the sidewalk, wondering how on earth I was going to make it to work in time – or at least without arriving 2+ hours late. I was so desperate that for a few minutes I even stood at the side of the road and tried to work up the courage to wave someone down that`d be willing to drop me off.

And that`s when I remembered the taxi app. Before coming to Japan, I`d researched lists of useful apps to have while traveling in Japan, and the Japan Taxi app was one of them. Uber isn`t widespread in Japan like it is in the States, but taxis are common. I didn`t expect to ever actually use the taxi, because I`d heard that they`re outrageously expensive – especially in Osaka – but I`d downloaded the app in case of emergencies. And I`d say that the situation I`d driven myself into could be considered worthy of an emergency.

I`d never opened the app before, but luckily it was straightforward, simple to use, and in English (for the most part). I added my name and phone number and set my current location – kind of like Uber I guess – and pressed call. I waited an excruciatingly long 45 seconds for a taxi to answer. To my relief, one did. The driver took about 6 minutes to get to me. By then, it was 8:30.

I`d given up trying to get to school on time, but now that I`d found a proper method of transportation, at least I wouldn`t be an hour late.

I hopped in the car, told the driver the name of the school; he typed it into his GPS and drove. During the ride, I couldn`t figure out if I was relieved or frustrated or if I wanted to start laughing or burst into tears. I was still in debate when the driver pulled up at the school`s front entrance.

I pulled out my wallet and checked the fare. The total, for about 3km, ended up at 1880¥, or $17.27. With a heavy heart, I handed my driver the money, including a little extra for tip. (He gave me back exact change though, which surprised me, but hey I`m not complaining).

I admit that I was expecting worse than 1880 after hearing horror stories of absurd fares; expecting worse somehow softened the blow of having to dish out nearly $20 for an 8 minute ride.

But considering that a bus could have taken me to the same destination, I`d much prefer to travel via bus for 220¥ next time, even if I do have to walk 15 minutes to Minoh train station.

New school, new shoes: my first day of work 

I arrived at the bus stop, nervous, excited – donned in business formal, purse in one hand and a Trader Joe`s bag filled with Skittles in the other. I waited for the 7:43am bus. It arrived a minute early. I tapped my pass at the entrance and nudged my way into the corner between a middle-aged man playing Pokemon Go and an elementary school student reviewing vocabulary. It was a weekday morning, so the bus was packed – probably beyond legal capacity.

I sat my Trader Joe`s bag down between my feet, clung to a hand ring to keep from falling over on my fellow passengers, and counted the stops. The ride went by quickly, what with the majority of it spent concentrating to keep myself upright against bumps and sudden brakes.

From the bus stop, I walked about 10 minutes up a steep hill. I`m not a fan of the incline, but at least the route is scenic. The walk takes me through a neighborhood that`s quiet and clean and every once in a while there`ll be a little statue of a tanuki greeting me.

At the top of the hill, I found my school on the right hand side. I went through the teacher’s entrance at the back. Before entering, I took off my shoes and put them inside a locker. I took out my new pair of “indoor shoes” from my purse and slipped them on, excited to finally be wearing them since they’d been sitting in my closet for weeks anticipating this moment.

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In Japan, both students and teachers wear a different pair of shoes that are specifically for use inside the school. There are shoe lockers at the entrances where students and teachers can switch in and out of their indoor and outdoor shoes. This of course keeps the interior of the school a lot cleaner and also teaches the students to treat shared property with respect. Also, in Japan, students are expected to clean their classrooms all by themselves, so they’re very careful to keep their rooms as clean as possible.

After strapping on my new indoor shoes, I found my way to the 職員室 (shokuinshitsu), or the staff room/lounge.

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The shokuinshitsu is where all of the teachers’ desks are located and where everyone gathers for lunch and bi-weekly meetings. It’s also where all of the supplies are kept for class, and has a tiny kitchen at the back as well where the staff can make tea and coffee.

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I arrived about thirty minutes early, before most of the other teachers. The Vice Principal, who happens to be nearly fluent in English, showed me to my desk. (My desk is conveniently located right next to the kitchen!) I sit right across from another JET, who has been working at the school as an Assistant Language Teacher for two years now. The two of us will be working together from now on.

After introducing myself to the other Japanese teachers, my fellow ALT gave me a tour of the school. Most elementary schools in Japan have the same design and are usually equipped with a gym, an outdoor playground, classes for extracurricular activities, and 2-3 rooms for each grade, 1-6. My school also has our very own English classroom! Itt isn`t being used right now since there isn`t air conditioning just yet. The AC should be installed next week though, so it looks like I arrived at just the right time!

After the tour, I took out my Trader Joe`s bag and started passing out my little individually-wrapped packages of Skittles, which I`d brought specifically as omiyage.

Omiyage – roughly translated as souvenirs – and gift-giving culture in general (though omiyage-giving and gift-giving are different), is really important in Japan. Especially in the workplace. Whenever someone travels – whether it be to a different country or a different region in Japan – it`s expected of them bring back omiyage to pass out to each of their fellow staff members, as well as family and friends. Usually, the omiyage will be a small, individually wrapped snack from the area where they traveled to.

After reading article after article written by other JET participants about the importance of picking out the perfect omiyage to bring for my teachers, I freaked out and ended up buying multiple different kinds of omiyage just in case. I even worried that Skittles weren`t good enough to hand out and nearly ordered a more expensive set of candy from the States after I`d already arrived in Japan. But the teachers were surprised that I`d brought anything in the first place and they accepted the Skittle packets with a smile and a bow.

I spent the rest of the afternoon reviewing the students` English curriculum, getting accustomed to the walk to and from classes, and settling into my new workspace. By the end of the day, I already felt right at home!

(I even received my very own locker, where I can keep my new pair of shoes.)

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