While in Okinawa: our home for a week

A friend and I spent the last week of March in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. To cut down on the cost of the trip, we rented out an apartment, which turned out to be a better accommodation than we’d expected and a perfect fit for the two of us. The apartment was clean, spacious, well-decorated, and stocked with extra amenities like towels and dish soap, and in a way it made Okinawa feel a little like home – even though home was nearly 1,000 miles away. Here are a few pictures I took of the place when we first arrived!

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A day trip through Edo

Japan’s Edo period is, in my opinion, the most fascinating period in Japanese history. It was a time of artistic and cultural development, a time of peace, prosperity, and social progress. It also happens to epitomize most people’s idea of “traditional Japan:” think tea ceremonies on tatami mats, samurai warriors on horseback with swords in hand, travelers clad in brightly colored kimonos, etc.

The Edo period took place from about 1600 to 1868 (ending with the start of the Meiji restoration and western imperialism). But for one and a half train rides, a quick bus detour, and 1500 Yen, I got to travel back 200 years and experience a snippet of the Edo period in all its glory – ninja and samurai included – at Toei Studios Park in Uzumara, Kyoto.

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Featuring a collection of various traditional buildings, which are occasionally used as a backdrop for filming historical movies and television dramas (known as jidaigeki films), the park is designed to resemble a quintessential small town from the Edo Period.

Unlike your typical theme park, there aren’t any rides, but Toei Studios Park offers a ton of different activities and attractions for guests to participate in during the day. There are ninja shows in the grand theater, sword-fighting lessons on the main street, even costume shops at the entrance where you can rent a kimono and wander the streets of ancient Japan as a geisha or samurai.

My friend and I watched a show called Class of the Ninjas: Ninja Show, Sasuke, which had the perfect amount of live action fight scenes, excessive shouting, and tacky special effects. We also watched behind-the-scenes footage of a scene in a period film from the director’s perspective and got to learn a few tips and tricks of the trade.

IMG_8209For the hungry traveler in search of refreshment, restaurants selling classic Japanese fare, like udon noodles and spiced curry, are interspersed throughout the tiny town. My friend and I stopped by a cafeteria with a simple, family-friendly menu selling both Japanese and western-style dishes. My friend ordered a hearty plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce – a staple of traditional Japan.

There were several food stalls along the main streets as well, offering snacks like mitarashi dango, grilled corn, and hot dogs, or “American wieners” as they were called. Though the food doesn’t necessarily stay true to the park’s theme, there’s something for everyone – young or old, tourist or local – to enjoy.

 

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“Milk Hall:” a retro coffee shop on the main street that sells everything milk-related, including fruit parfaits, soft-serve ice cream, and a popular strawberry milk concoction.

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The park itself is very small; it only took my friend and I about two hours to walk the entire vicinity. But regardless of its size, the experience of traversing ancient Japan on foot was well worth the trip – one that I doubt I’ll be able to have again. Unless I return for a second visit of course, which I’d say is very possible; I wouldn’t mind re-watching the Ninja Show Sasuke again.

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Here’s a link to the park’s website if you want to learn more about the park, its attractions, and how to get there! If you’re in the Kansai area, I definitely recommend stopping by for an afternoon.

Nara Park: the land of bold and brazen deer

Nara, Japan: once upon a time the nation’s capital, now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Though Nara is well-known for its centuries-old temples, and its impressive array of history, arts, and culture museums, the city’s main and most beloved attraction is, without a doubt, the deer.

I’ve been desperate to visit the deer in Nara ever since arriving in Japan; I mean, it’s not everyday you get the chance to see a deer up close, let alone pet one on the head! Since Nara is only about a two hour commute from Minoh, many of my fellow Minoh JET’s had already been to Nara before. As I listened to stories about my friends’ deer-petting experiences over the last six months, I grew more and more eager for my own.

Finally, after months of attempting – and failing – to fit an excursion to Nara into my schedule, I had the chance to take the long overdue trip during the long winter break. Two days after Christmas, my friend (who’d been staying with me from the States) and I decided to brave the brutal winter winds and visit Nara Park.

Upon exiting Kinetsu-Nara station, we began making our way toward the park. I knew we were headed in the right direction when I started to see deer painted on street posts. IMG_9190And sure enough, after about a 10 minute walk, we spotted our first deer! IMG_9201IMG_9196And then our second, third, and many more after that. The deer were everywhere – I’d say I saw at least 30 in the area we walked through alone. Some were drinking from the stream, nibbling on the grass, others lounging beneath the shade. But, unsurprisingly, the majority of the deer in the area were gathered near a cart selling 鹿せんべい.IMG_9225鹿せんべい (pronounced shika senbei) are thin, round crackers made of flour, water, and bran that can be fed to the deer.  This cart, one of the many set up along the outskirts of the park, sold the crackers in a set of 10 for 150 yen each.

My friend and I purchased a set of shika senbei and split it between the two of us. Since I only had 5, I wanted to be careful about which deer I fed. I read online somewhere that the deer will sometimes bow to you for a cracker, which I thought sounded like fun to see, so I planned on handing out each of my five crackers to the deer that was the most polite, hoping to entice a head nod or two.

But the instant the nearby deer sniffed the crackers in my hand, none of them bowed. Instead, they charged toward me, like an ambush, advancing in my direction from all sides. At first, I was excited to attract the attention of so many deer, but my initial excitement quickly turned to alarm when the first deer to reach me began hitting me with his head! I tried to hide the crackers inside my jacket to make him stop, but the deer would not be fooled by my amateur tricks and continued bumping against my side. And then another deer came up and started butting my backpack. And another bit my jacket!IMG_9234I was so overwhelmed by the audacious, aggressive pack of deer that I ended up handing over all five of my crackers to the one closest to me, which devoured them all in seconds. Once the other deer realized that I had no more food left, they immediately dispersed. Cracker-less, and slightly traumatized, I watched the deer saunter away in search of yet another shika senbei-holding-human to attack.

No more deer came up to me after that, but I didn’t mind much – it was easier to take pictures of them at a distance anyway.IMG_9224IMG_9228My first experience with the Nara deer ended up being a bit different from what I expected it to be, but it was an experience that I know I’ll remember for a long time; after all, it’s not every day I get the chance to be ambushed by a pack of hungry deer. I’d even say that Nara Park has made it to the top of my list of favorite places in Japan, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone planning on visiting the area. But for those who do happen to make the trip to the Park, keep in mind that although the deer may look gentle, they definitely won’t be bowing to you for a cracker. IMG_9250 copy

A tribute to the Momiji

Winter has made itself at home in Minoh. The trees – once painted all kinds of yellows and reds and oranges – are brown now, bare and grim. As I make my way around the city, biking to the grocery store or lugging my dirty clothes to the laundromat, I can’t help but feel a bit somber at the sight of all the brown, leaf-less maple trees. So once in a while, I’ll look back at pictures that I took during a hike up the path towards Minoh’s waterfall in mid-November, just as the maple leaves were turning red. I’ve walked that path several times, but it was especially beautiful that day. I thought I’d dedicate a post to the photos from that hike, in honor of the momiji、or maple leaves.

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Little stalls and shops selling souvenirs and Momiji tempura line the street.
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A humble foot bath for weary travelers.

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For access to the Minoh waterfall, here’s the link to the website.

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.

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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