Thursday, November 22, 2018

My First Thanksgiving Away from Home



Perhaps the title would suggest that this post will be a bit melancholic. Don’t worry; it’s not (too much so)!

This year was the first time that I’d been away from home for Thanksgiving. Even every year of college I went home for the Thanksgiving holidays, complete with tons of family and food. Therefore, today was a bit of a first. 

So, how did I spend my Thanksgiving away from home...

Because I judged a debate contest a few Saturdays ago, I had the opportunity to take a day off work. The fourth Thursday of November is an ordinary working holiday in Japan, but November 23rd is a day off. The schedule worked out so that Thanksgiving was a good chance to use my day off, giving myself a luxurious four day weekend. I decided to make it a nice stay-cation in order to save up for some upcoming adventures. 
   
So as I did on any day off during the school year…I slept in. Woke up nearly around the time I would have normally been eating lunch. I seldom remember waking up in time for the Macey’s Day Parade anyway. I chatted with my dad over Facetime before he went to bed. Let it be known how thankful I am for video calling technology.

When we signed off, I reviewed my to-do list for the day. Get a flu shot, attempt Christmas shopping, get groceries, and prep stuffing.

Noooooo, not a shot!

Anyone who knows me well knows I hate needles. Vaccines, TB tests, splinters, any of it. Hate them a lot. Probably more the anticipation of the pain than the actual pain, but none of it's fun. I had never voluntarily gotten a flu shot before. But this year was different for some reason. I work at a school. Facemasks can only do so much. Time to grow up and get one. Today was as good as any day to do it.

Little did I realize that I drive by a clinic everyday on my way to and from work. After finding it effortlessly, I walked in, asked about influenza vaccines, and was waited on by three different people. One receptionist helped me with initial paperwork, and two nurses interviewed me about my health. I only had to consult the dictionary twice about the words “illness” and “convulsions.” The rest of the I managed to understand or could ask for clarification. So, I’m thankful for their patience, and my dictionary app. Shortly after, I managed not to whimper during the vaccine, paid, and was on my way. I’m thankful for the access to healthcare. Of course, I’m thankful that I was able to answer the questions about illness by affirming that I’m healthy.

After the vaccine I headed to the mall for the Christmas shopping and groceries. The Christmas shopping was mostly just browsing and getting ideas, but I do need to finish it soon if I’m gonna send gifts to my family in time for Christmas. I also thankfully remembered to pay some bills that are due soon before the bank closed at 3:00pm (normal closing time for the bank).

Grocery shopping in Japan is still difficult, even after nearly four months, but today’s trip went well enough. There weren’t hordes of people looking for cranberry sauce and pumpkin. The only truly difficult thing to find was vegetable stock for vegetarian stuffing. Trying to find a turkey would have been impossible; turkey isn’t really eaten in Japan. Getting one would have been costly and would have required being preordered awhile ago. On top of that, I don’t have an oven to cook one in!
Tomorrow night I’m attending a “Friendsgiving” with other ALTs in Miyazaki and decided to bring vegetarian stuffing. If that fails without an oven or adequate stock, I’m also making guacamole and bringing wine. Regardless, I’m thankful for the ALTs here who have also made a home away from home in Miyazaki.

After grocery shopping, I went home and started ripping up the pieces of bread so that they could sit overnight. I relaxed a little, too, before heading out to English Conversation Club at church. On Thursday nights I go to church and help with either English conversation group with adults or, more lately, help with an English club for elementary school-aged kids. Every week with the kids is different, but this week we talked about Thanksgiving traditions in America and drew turkeys by tracing hands. Nobody had eaten turkey before!

I am very thankful for the community at the church. That will have to be a longer post another week.

Now I’m back in my comfortable apartment, typing away, thinking about how peaceful and productive the day was. I miss seeing my family (as I often do). I miss gravy and turkey. But it was not a bad day. After all, it was another day living the dream of teaching English in Japan. For that, I’m thankful every day.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Matsuri Favorites



Matsuri is Japanese for “festival.” Perhaps I’ve mentioned attending one or two in other posts. I would describe them first and foremost as community gatherings. They aren’t exclusive to the members of a particular community, which I say because last weekend I attended a matsuri an hour and a half away. Sometimes there are fireworks. Sometimes there is dancing. Sometimes there are parades of dancing. Every time I've attended a matsuri I've walked away with takoyaki. Above all, each one I’ve been to has been distinctive, celebrating its own event.

Here’s what I most look forward to when I attend a matsuri.

Food 


In the U.S., you gotta have your deep friend [insert food here] at any given fair or festival, right? Similarly, matsuri food is also a must-experience meal.

My forever favorite is takoyaki, or fried octopus balls. Imagine little pieces of octopus fried in a ball of batter, topped with delicious okonomiyaki-like (maybe actually okonomiyaki?) sauce. Oishii yo!

While I don’t like it quite as much as takoyaki, I would also recommend trying ika: squid. I’ve seen it fried on a stick with its own sauce. I found it to be particularly chewy. 

On the topic of chewy foods, at a festival in Shiiba, Miyazaki, I tried inoshishi, or wild boar. Super chewy, but super flavorful! It came in fried pieces on a stick. I have learned the word inoshishi since being in Japan, and it’s stuck with me because the upcoming new year will be the year of the boar/pig.

Finally, one festival food that I’m told originated in Miyazaki is niku maki. I tried it at a festival in Hyuga, Miyazaki. Niku maki is a rice ball wrapped in thinly sliced meat (niku = meat, maki = wrapped in). I assure you, they’re equally filling as they are delicious. 



There’s tons of other festival foods, too. For desserts one can find everything from shaved ice to crepes to dango: little pieces of mochi (I think) on a stick, drizzled in a sweet sauce. Definitely worth the hyaku en.

Lanterns and Lights


Lanterns aglow are stunning, no matter where you are, right? Especially as they’re floating down a river, like they were at the Bon festival in my city in August. I noticed that many festivals feature lights, maybe with lanterns or fireworks. Definitely keep an eye out for lanterns as the sun goes down.

Dancing

I’ve noticed the community come together to dance on several occasions at matsuri. Sometimes they parade down the street with music blaring from a car, sometimes the dancing is in a massive circle at the end of the night. You may even be invited to join in if you’re willing to follow the steps to the best of your abilities and have a go.



Last weekend’s matsuri featured The Tale of Heike, with a parade of samurais and princesses. 
Like I’ve seen in American and Irish parades, there was also a high school marching band. The song they were playing? An arrangement of U.S.A by Da Pump. To be fair, it makes for a great brass-band piece.

Matsuri are a staple of living in a community in Japan, and I believe that to be an ALT is to be part of a greater community. So, if ever the opportunity to go to a matsuri arises, you'll likely see me there watching odori and eating takoyaki 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Writing from the Kotatsu




Let’s flash back to three months ago when I arrived at my first independent apartment (ever). I sat on the couch in my living room and marveled at the amenities left to me by my predecessor, among them a couch, a coffee table, and another plastic table…I wasn’t sure what to do with the plastic table. It seemed like a cheap purchase. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living abroad, it’s that looks things aren’t always what they seem. I moved it to another area of the apartment to make space, having no idea that come November I would assemble it with some blankets in the closet to make the best piece of furniture in my home.

I had heard about kotatsu (炬燵) a few times before coming to Japan, as in I knew that Japanese households often used heated tables in the winter. I didn’t know they were called kotatsu, and I didn’t know I would own one. Moreover, I didn’t know how life-changing they were.

My pred left behind straight forward instructions to several ins-and-outs of the apartment, including assembling the kotatsu. Essentially, the kotatsu is made up of a table top, the table base, a blanket that goes underneath the whole table, and a larger blanket that goes under the table top and around the table legs. It took me a few moments to figure out which was which. It took me even longer to realize that the heater part of the kotatsu is already in the table. The electricity comes from a plug that you plug into a wall and into the kotatsu heater. All in all, for a first time go, it was a 10-minute set up for a whole winter’s worth of use.

Once I made myself all cozy under the heater, only one question remained:

Why don’t we have kotatsu in America??
Or…do we?

We have heated blankets…do we use heated tables? Not as foten, right?  I’ve also wondered about heated toilet seats that are common place here; those seem like they’d really take off in America! The kotatsu is essentially a heated blanket with a table base. Several people have told me how nice it is to sleep under kotatsu blankets…each mentioned is followed-up by a warning: if you sleep under them, you’ll catch a cold!

Perhaps it’s a bit early for the kotatsu. I think my friends and family in the Midwest and East Coast USA have started wearing jackets and coats. While I haven’t experienced too much chill yet in Miyazaki, I’ve been warned that a big difference is that homes are insulated differently than in America. To make matters colder, people don’t usually keep heaters on all night. It will get cold eventually.  

Needless to say, I moved the “plastic table” back to the living room and don’t see myself moving it again anytime soon.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Halloween in Japan?


(Apologies for the later-than-Thursday posting)

I’m not usually so big on Halloween. I’m not one to put up the Halloween decorations as soon as the clock strikes midnight on October 1st,  but my involvement otherwise depends on the year. Some years I find myself wrapped up in the autumn holiday spirit and actually buy--or make--a costume, while other years not. This year was definitely one of the former years, perhaps especially because it was my first Halloween outside of the United States. 

Is Halloween celebrated in Japan?

I kind of wondered all throughout October.

I had assumed it wouldn’t be celebrated that much at all. But back in September I was surprised to see Halloween snacks and decorations go on sale at the local grocery stores, mostly Minion costumes and witch hats. While I didn’t see the sheer abundance of Halloween cheer that I’m used to back home, there were still some anticipation. 
  
So, I thought maybe people do recognize Halloween in Japan.

But…when I started asking people what their Halloween plans were…the answers were nearly all, “We don't usually do much for Halloween." 

And yet…the train station had skeleton decorations up on display!

It seemed like everyone I taught knew about trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns, and the usual traditions. However, few had actually participated in the traditions.

Part of the reason why I felt so involved in Halloween this year was because I was invited to a few Halloween parties at English clubs. One was at my friend’s Halloween Party near Kumamoto City, and another was at my church’s Halloween party. So, some sort of costume was in order (I also wanted a little costume to wear during the aforementioned Halloween lesson). I headed to the infamous Mega Don Quijote for a Halloween costume, per recommendation. Mega Donki is a superstore on the other side of town (and throughout Japan), generally with good deals and a large variety. I'm not sure what to compare it to in the United States. I get overwhelmed easily by all the options, so I’ve only been twice. Donki had the widest variety of costumes, with lots of witches and monsters. I opted for a headband with a little orange witch’s hat.

What I missed most of all was carving jack-o-lanterns and roasting pumpkin seeds, which I did do growing up, as well as once alone in college. I didn’t come across any carving pumpkins here, and even if I had, I don’t have a good place to put the pumpkin.

So, I suppose my findings are that Japan embraces Halloween to an extent for fun. Some places more than others. In Shibuya, Tokyo there was some wild Halloween fun in the scramble cross-walk that looked exciting. But, Shibuya's on a completely different island from me. Perhaps the traditions are spreading more and more.

But, Halloween is so last month. It's November already. (!!) Without Thanksgiving to even blink at, I’ve noticed some Christmas spirit already popping up in shopping centers! Too soon!

But, for me, no Christmas music until AFTER Thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Hebesu, Matcha, and Mango: A Familiar Treat, New Flavors


 Part of the joys of traveling is trying new foods, isn’t it? Ice cream counts as food, right? I realized that in three weekends in a row I’ve come across three new ice cream flavors. Two of these flavors are easy enough to track down in the U.S. But, still, in the name of wanting a lighthearted subject matter, here’s the ice cream I’ve had lately.

Ice Cream #1: Hebesu



Heh? Hebesu?

It’s a citrus fruit from Hyuga, a city on the Pacific coast (at least, Hyuga claims the fruit). It’s a small round, green fruit, with an outer layer that feels like a lemon or a lime. The taste is tangy. Eating one will quickly clear your sinuses for the rest of the year.

Hebesu as soft-serve ice cream? Hmmm…

The texture was creamy, like a respectable soft-serve cone. I felt the flavor didn’t quite match, though. It took a few bites to get used to tangy soft-serve. After getting acclimated, it was delicious.
At a recent surfing competition in Hyuga I tried hebesu lemonade, which was perhaps a better match for the flavor. It was tangy. And…hot. I don’t know why it was hot lemonade. There wasn’t a cold-lemonade option. But the wind from the ocean kept us all cool, anyway.


Ice Cream #2: Matcha




I have seen matcha as an ice cream flavor in America, but not necessarily a soft-serve flavor.
I drink a lot of green tea. It’s my go to vending machine treat. Now at the grocery stores I buy the giant liter containers of green tea for less than 200yen just to keep at home. I have a fine collection of pet-bottles from all the tea I buy, that I take out to the recycling once a week (unless I forget, like this week). So matcha ice cream should be my favorite, right?

I found this matcha ice cream at a vendor during a day-trip to Oita City. The green ice cream was cute and intriguing (do it for the #gram), and the flavor was…like a really rich green tea. Like three packets of matcha. Very flavorful. Again, good creamy texture. Another flavor to get used to.


Ice Cream #3: Mango





Miyazaki is known for the “Miyazaki Mango.” I’ve heard that an actual Miyazaki Mango is absurdly expensive, but that doesn’t stop lots of products from being mango flavored. Many go-to omiyage from Miyazaki is undoubtedly mango flavored. It’s probably worth noting that I have yet to see mangoes growing anywhere. I’ve noticed more and more kaki (persimmons) this month, but no mango.   

 Anyway, mango ice cream.

Back at the surfing competition, I treated myself to some soft-serve at the end of the day. And given that it was mango soft-serve, of course it was orange.

The texture was not as creamy as I usually like soft-serve to be, but the flavor was as to be expected when ordering mango. Sweet, but not overly so. This soft-serve had little bits of jelly in it, too. All in all, a good investment.

All three of the soft-serves were 300yen, which must be the going rate for soft-serve around here. That's just shy of $3.

I usually prefer sprinkles with softserve, or maybe chocolate dip with my ice cream, but I don't think that would have suited these flavors. If I were in Ireland I'd ask for a 99 with a flake, so that my ice cream would come with a piece of chocolate. But would that have gone with the hebesu? 

9 years ago ,at a tourist spot in southern Miyazaki, I noticed ebi flavored soft serve. Shrimp flavored! I’m on the look-out for that pink ice cream. But of course, that will have to be another post.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Face Mask Season



A bit more than two months ago when I first arrived, I was told that autumn in Miyazaki lasts for a week. At that point I was still basking in the humid, hot sunshine and denying that this balmy prefecture could ever get cold. Miyazaki is the “sunshine of Japan,” isn’t it? Isn’t it hot and gorgeous and near-tropical feeling all the time in Southern Japan?

Silly, Ohioan. Kyushu isn’t in the tropics. Not even close.

So far, I disagree that autumn is only a week. It seems like autumn has been underway since the beginning of October, and the seasonal changes are becoming more and more obvious. We haven’t had a typhoon in a little over a week. I don’t usually turn my aircon on when I walk in the room, but I might have to turn on the lights if it’s any later than 18:00. I don’t use a sweat towel anymore, unless I’m hiking. When I leave my apartment for work I contemplate turning around and grabbing a jacket…though my jackets are actually in a box en route from Ohio right now (thanks, Dad). At work, some students have started wearing their winter uniforms. This is all to say that it’s getting colder, just like they all said it would. *sigh*

The autumn leaves have not changed into any brilliant colors—maybe that’s the part of autumn that lasts for a week.

I’ve also started to notice the prevalence of sanitary face masks. These masks are usually white with a sort-of mesh material that covers the mouth and nose. They also have little elastic hooks that go around the ears and are usually sort of snug around the face. In Japan, it is entirely normal to wear these masks if you’re feeling under the weather but still gotta persevere through the day.
Well, not only if you’re sick, I’ve discovered.

I’ve heard people are also wearing them to avoid getting sick, which makes perfect sense. But will they wear them all flu-season long? Someone else mentioned that they’re a great way to cover up skin blemishes around the nose and mouth. One person told me they were wearing one purely because they liked the way the mask looked. So, you see, they’re functional and fashionable.
Not only have I noticed people wearing facemasks everywhere, but I’ve noticed you can also buy facemasks anywhere. Most stores I go in will have facemasks readily for sale near the checkout counter.  

If I saw someone in America wearing a facemask, I might wonder if they were really sick, or perhaps a fear of having a health condition. But here they’re a normal precaution for spreading the flu in autumn and beyond. I’ve already got a few ready for the first sniffles of the season.

In the meantime, autumn has been nice. There may be no football excitement (which I strongly associate with central Ohio) or apple orchards (which I strongly associate with New York, though I never went to a single one while I was in college). It isn’t so cold that I’ve pulled out the kontatsu (that’ll have to be another post). In fact, it’s still warm enough that two weekends ago, some friends and I were able to hit the beach and go swimming on a whim’s notice one nice October afternoon. Sure, the other surfers in their wetsuits maybe have watched us quizzically, since swimming season surly ended in August, but the water was warm (for us), and we were determined to soak up the surf before coat season settles on us. After all, the sunshine is still golden in Miyazaki, even when summer has come to pass.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

I love my job! Maybe you would, too!

I haven't talked much about my job, have I? Maybe a few posts ago with Sports Day?

I'm feel prompted to talk about my job, since it's that time of year again…the application to work in Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme is live!


As mentioned in a previous post (maybe the first), I am working in Japan thanks to the JET Programme. My job description is essentially that I'm an Assistant Language Teacher at a particular high school. My favorite part of my job is when I'm in the actual classroom working with students and Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs). In addition to that, I also get to help plan lessons, correct writing assignments, assist students as they prepare for English-speaking contests, and be an American representative in a school community, along with other responsibilities. It's an awesome opportunity for me because for years I've dreamed of living in far off places and exploring new lifestyles, languages, and cultures. JET is great because I'm in a position where I can share my culture, background, and every confusing piece of the English language with students who are learning English, all while living in Japan. Needless to say, I'm living the dream.

Yes, I may have written about a typhoon last week, but living here is really an adventure.

A few of my friends have mentioned applying, which I find super exciting. If you’re also eyeing my job and lifestyle with particular interest, as far as living in Japan and teaching English as a foreign language goes, JET may be a good fit. 

So, the rest of my post will be a few quick random, large brush-strokes thoughts on JET and the application.

Quick disclaimer: these are my personal thoughts based on my personal experiences. I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of this year’s application, and I’m not an expert on how to get on the JET Programme. All I know is that I’m a JET and this is what I did on my application to get here.

1) The application guidelines will be the most informative on how to actually apply. I heard this year that the application is paperless this year, to which I must admit I’m a bit jealous. Check the online application for more details on how to actually apply.

2) The time-line pretty much goes like this: in America, the application is due online in November, but the results of interview selections will be closer to late-December/early-January, depending on which consulate of Japan you apply to (more details in the application). In-person interviews then happen at your consulate in late-January/early-February. Results then should be announced by late-March, early-April. If you apply for early departure in the spring, your departure is soon after. If you apply for regular departure, you would then depart for Japan in late-July/early-August. For example, I left America for Japan on August 4th and I was in the second departure group. More information on that can be found on the application, I imagine.

3) The application is a lot of paperwork. Recommendation letters, proof of graduation, release forms, etc. But, once you’re in, there’s even more paperwork for visas, background checks, and so on. At one point my personal catchphrase was “life is paperwork.” It’s good to embrace it sooner than later!

4) The JET Programme doesn’t only recruit for teaching positions. If your Japanese skills are top-notch, you may be qualified to be a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR). More information is available on the application guidelines.

 5) I have met ALTs on the JET Programme who speak Japanese fluently, and I have met ALTS on the program who only knew a few words of Japanese before applying. No language requirement is necessary.

6) Which leads me to saying this: I don't think there is one perfect JET. I’ve met JETs who are fresh out of college, JETs who have teaching experience, JETs with children, and JETs from all over the world (which is pretty cool). You’ll meet a lot of cool people from all different backgrounds who are all passionate about living in Japan and cross-cultural exchange.

7) It's a pretty cool gig with a well connected community across the country and interwebs (more on that in another post). I think that may be one of the best parts of JET; I feel like someone's always got my back.

TL;DR: JET has been great so far, the application as a lot of elements but is managable, and I'm a happy ALT in Japan. 

For all of the future JET Applicants, がんばって !