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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A stroll through Kyoto

Kyoto is unlike any other city I’ve seen – never have I been anywhere as beautiful, as captivating, and as distinct as Kyoto, Japan.  The heart of tradition, it protects and preserves the aspects of Japanese culture which make the country’s character unique.

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This past weekend, I visited Kyoto for the first time. Since I’d never been to the city before, and knew very little about it, my friends and I joined a free walking tour of Gion.

Gion is a traditional entertainment district in the center of Kyoto. Woven throughout the famous district are streets lined with shops selling traditional Japanese craftwork, like chirimen craft and handmade ceramic bowls, as well as traditional Japanese snacks.

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But what I found most interesting about Gion is the fact that it is also Kyoto’s most famous geisha district.

The tour guide led us to several ochaya (teahouses), where maiko and geiko entertain guests, for up to thousands of dollars. You can tell if a building is a tea house by the metal plate outside the door, and by the wood engravings which list the names of the geishas-in-training who live there. (See the picture below.)

According to the guide, there are only 300 geishas in Japan – all of them live and work in Kyoto.

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The kanji on the metal plate read お茶屋, or tea house.

Though Gion is well regarded as a hub for entertainment, there are temples and shrines located throughout the district as well, which make for an interesting change in both scenery and atmosphere. Sometimes temples – big and small – will spring up at random, near the edge of an alley or even in the middle of a shopping center. While on the tour, our group found ourselves occassionally wandering onto sacred grounds, which I suppose is the norm in a city that’s the center of traditional Japanese culture.

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One of the temples that we stopped by had an area dedicated to Jizo statues, which are stone carvings wrapped in pieces of brightly colored fabric that are often found at temples or shrines.

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The tour guide explained that these traditional Buddhist statues provided solace to Japanese women who suffered from a miscarriage, as the statue was believed to protect and prevent unborn children from going to hell. It’s believed that as the babies did not have the chance to build up good karma on earth, ‘Jizo’ helps smuggle the children into the afterlife in the sleeves of his robe.

Good karma seemed to be a common theme at the temple – because beside the Jizo statues was a large collection of Sarubobos.

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Sarubobo literally translates to “a baby monkey.” Saru is the Japanese word for monkey, and bobo is the word for baby in the Takayama dialect. The sarubobo is associated with a protection from bad things; in Japanese, the word “leave” translates as saru, so possession of a sarubobo means that bad things will, well, saru. The monkey-shaped charms are all burned at the end of the year, though, so visitors will have to return to the temple at the start of the year if they want that bad thing of theirs to stay away.

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After meandering along a few more vendor-lined streets, the tour came to a close, and the other tourists in the group went off to continue exploring the city on their own. Though brief, I’m glad I opted to take the tour – I ended up learning so much about traditional Japan through only a tiny glimpse of Kyoto.

I’m excited to go back soon, so that I can discover even more about the country I’m beginning to call home.

Where to Find a Whole Cheesecake for 685 Yen

You’ve probably heard a little bit about “Japanese cheesecake.” It’s a huge hit right now – or at least it was a few months ago when I saw an INSIDER YouTube video featuring a dessert stand in Japan selling a special kind of fresh cheesecake, known for its signature jiggle. I’d never seen a cheesecake like that before – I knew I had to try it. So I added the featured dessert stand to my ever-increasing While in Osaka bucket list. And I finally got the chance to cross the destination off the list!

The stand is called Rikuro Ojisan no mise Namba (りくろーおじさんの店 なんば本店), which roughly translates to Mr. Rikuro`s shop in Namba. Rikuro Ojisan is actually a chain, but the INSIDER video happened to feature the Namba location, so of course I had to go to that one. Luckily for me, the commute to Namba from Minoh is pretty straightforward – a train to Umeda, a subway ride to Namba station. And the shop itself is only about a five minute walk from the station`s west exit.

After navigating our way through the district’s hectic streets, lined with shops and restaurants, we arrived. The renowned sweets stand wasn’t difficult to spot, what with the classic red flags stamped with the outline of Rikuro-san’s smiling face marking the front entrance.

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Fortunately, the line out front wasn’t as long as I’d thought it would be. Service was fast, cheesecakes were piling up fresh from the ovens – my friends and I only had to wait our turn for a few minutes at most. There were a wide array of dessert and pastry options besides cheesecake to choose from too, as well as an extensive drink menu, but we decided to stick with just the cheesecake that had lured us all the way there in the first place.

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Rikuro’s 人気No.1 (Most Popular)

Between me and my four friends, we decided to split one cheesecake – which turned out to be way more than enough. (We barely even finished half.) In fact, I bet one could easily feed up to ten people. They’re that big, like the size of my head kind of big. And​ the best part is that one cheesecake – one WHOLE cheesecake – is only 685¥! (About $6.26.) Yeah, I’m serious. No, I don’t get it either.

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The five of us gathered around a tiny table at the stand’s limited seating area. We were given a butter knife, tiny plastic spoons, and plates for sharing. We took the cheesecake out from its box and stared at it and poked it and shook it to see if it actually jiggled. (It did.) After posting obligatory Snapchat videos and taking several close-up shots for Instagram, we were finally ready to slice up the cake and see for ourselves whether its taste was as appetizing as its appearance…

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Sadly, it wasn’t.

To my – and my friends’ -​disappointment, the first bite of Rikuro-san’s cheesecake left much to be desired.

First, the flavor itself was overwhelmingly egg-y. It honestly tasted like scrambled eggs with a dash of sugar mixed in. It also left a strange aftertaste on the back of my tongue that I can’t quite put into words. The texture was alright, but it was a little grainy at first – not smooth, like I’d typically expect cheesecake to be. The addition of raisins also didn’t seem to work all that well either – though, I’m not that big a fan of raisins in general, so I’m probably biased.

On the plus side, the cake wasn’t ​overwhelmingly rich or heavy, so I didn’t feel sick after eating a slice, as is usually the case with a much smaller slice of cheesecakes I’ve had in the States.

Overall, I think the cheesecake’s reasonably low price makes the cake a worthwhile try, but I’m not sure I approve of Rikuro’s twist on this classic dessert…

Maybe I`ll try out the pudding next time instead.

Arriving in Minoh

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

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My little bento box!

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

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The view from the train.

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

 

Orientation in Minoh Day 1

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

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

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One of the cafes walking distance from my apartment complex.

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

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

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

Orientation in Minoh Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

Orientation in Minoh Day 3

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

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

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

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JET Program: Tokyo Orientation

I’m sitting at a McDonald’s eating vanilla soft serve, trying to take advantage of the free wifi – which I only have one hour of. I’ve discovered that wifi is almost impossible to find in Japan, and when it is available, there’s always a limit. I’m getting wifi installed in my apartment this upcoming Saturday, but for now, McDonald’s will have to suffice.

It’s only been a week since Tokyo Orientation, but so much has happened! I’ve set up a bank account, signed up for cell and internet service, moved into my new apartment and furnished it – all in a week. Today is the first free day that I’ve had to finally sit down and write, so I have a lot to catch up on.

I’ll start with last Saturday, the 24th: the first day of orientation in Tokyo.

Day 1

The first day started off with breakfast at 7am. The food was classic Western brunch – bacon, sausage, egg, yogurt, soup and salad, and lots of coffee. The scrambled eggs were some of the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had! They were super soft, kind of like mayonnaise. It sounds gross, I know, but it was amazing.

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We moved to the ballroom after breakfast, making sure to be in our seats by 8:45. In Japan, being “on-time” actually means arriving 15 minutes early, which I’m not sure if I like or not. The ballroom filled up by 8:50. There were probably up to a thousand JET’s from all over the United States present, as well as JET’s from multiple countries around the world – including South Africa, Ireland, Australia, and Jamaica. Each country’s flag stood hanging on front stage, to the left and right of Japan’s.

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The morning consisted of 3 lecture-style sessions on important information – about the JET program, the structure of the Japanese education system, and other essential things to know about living in Japan. The material was mainly review for me though, so I had trouble paying attention. I’m sure the other JET’s felt the same, because I saw quite a few dozing off in their seats.

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It tasted a lot better than it looks, trust me.

Lunch was a 180 from breakfast’s Western-style spread: tofu stew with cabbage and bean sprouts, rice, and a wakame and carrot soup. (According to several conversations I overheard, lunch was definitely not as popular as breakfast.) I didn’t mind the food though – AND I happened to sit at the table with all of the Ireland JET’s, which probably doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but I was super excited about it (fun fact: the Irish are probably the sweetest bunch of people you’ll ever meet). I have a feeling that I enjoyed lunch a little more than others.

 

 

After lunch, more sessions. These were school specific, so I went to the sessions on elementary school. I learned about the textbook that’s usually used in class – “Hi, Friend!” and lots of different games and activities that are typically used to help teach the lesson to Japanese children.

That was when I started to feel really overwhelmed by everything that was happening. I’d been a student my entire life, until only a month ago. I still felt like a student really, yet there I was learning how to become a teacher. A real teacher! The reality that I wouldn’t be sitting at a desk anymore finally hit me, the reality that in a month I’ll be standing in front of a class filled students all looking to me, all expecting to learn, and I’ll need to be ready to teach them something about English.

I didn’t know if I wanted to start dancing or burst into tears and book a ticket back to LAX. I sat through the session and kept taking notes, feeling afraid and excited and upset and happy all at the same time.

Day 2

I woke up around 4am the next day. (Ah, jet-lag.) Got ready for breakfast, put on my business attire again. (Japan takes business attire very seriously – on the first day, the person in front of me didn’t have a suit jacket and he was escorted from the room.)

Breakfast was the same – I made sure to eat lots of the scrambled eggs.

The first session was a panel with three guest ALT’s who taught at elementary and junior high schools. They described their experiences teaching at their respective schools, gave advice, answered questions – probably the most useful session of the orientation. It was good to know what to expect for once, since I’ve been in the dark about what I’ll actually have to do on a day-to-day basis.

The rest of the day was a bunch of sessions on teaching techniques used in elementary schools, like using role-plays, telling stories, and making crafts – things that get the students engaged and involved in the material. It was all super overwhelming again, but I tried to reassure myself that once I actually start teaching, I’ll develop my own routine, and in time I’ll figure out what does and doesn’t work for me and my students. It’ll take a lot of practice, work, and quite a bit of trial and error, but eventually I plan to become the best elementary school English teacher I can be. ^_^

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