An Abundance of Apples… And Then Some

The final chapter in the sixth years’ quest to grow the perfect apples and the fifth years’ rice farming experience. No matter how many times I participate, it’s always invigorating to see my kids learning something for the first time: the fumbled guesses, the hair raising stumbles, and the beautiful ‘A-HA!’ light bulb moments. It just never ever gets old.

Children are incredulously and incredibly, well, incredible. I know this explains nothing, but there are no better words for all the funny, candid moments I get with them. The things they say, the ways in which they problem solve. Every precious victory is cause for day long celebration, every failure a drama worthy of a season on HBO. Kids are so full of life, everything is so new to them. And it’s been a real privilege and an honor to be taken along for the ride.

I almost want to pitch a documentary series to NatGeo about kids and how they grow up around the world.

 

The Final Road Trip (with Kim as co-pilot)

From the beloved Gonohe in Aomori to the tip of Kagoshima Prefecture. A projected 25 hour ride along the west coast according to the ever reliable demon oracle Siri, with two friends who made this year the adventure of a lifetime, and you can bet we will be hitting up every last Pokemon center on the way down and on the way up.

Okay, so it won’t be the last road trip I take, but it will be the last with dearest Kim as co-pilot. All good things must come to an end…

thefinalroadtrip

A lovely picture up above, just so everyone can appreciate that this summer may spell out certain doom. Yes, I understand that Kyushu is the single most miserable place on Earth during the summer but the challenge is there, it’s so very much temptingly there… Wanderlust comrades, unite! In reality, we may only get as far as Fukuoka. My boss, in his youth, fondly recalled setting out one day for adventure as he put it… which ended in Hiroshima, but he applauded my recklessness by adding an ever encouraging がんばるべ. Not sure if I shall rent out a car to make driver switching less of a hassle or if taking Suzu-chan for the memories would be, well, more memorable. All 4,000 km.

Which leads me to the Prefecture Bucket List of many a month ago. Considering the length of this road trip, I would be heading towards un-chartered territory (both in methods of long distance travelling and locations). Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Hyogo, Tottori, and Shimane would be completely new destinations, with Hiroshima/Kyoto/Miyajima being blasts from the past going on round two.

Although, this also serves as scoping out the lay of the land for when Mumsie finally makes her first trans-Pacific flight during summer 2016.

And that concludes the insanity quota for the day, folks.

Winter Kindness

Every Tuesday night at the local grocery store in Gonohe, Mister Donut comes to set up shop for us poor inaka folks. Like clockwork, every Tuesday before kendo, I’m lined up for groceries and a doughnut (or three). By now my internal clock has a Misdo switch; also it’s the only time I seem to talk to adults outside of work hours. Chatting up the lovely people at Yokomachi is my favorite Monday through Friday activity, most of them are the parents of my lovely pupils… because, you know, inaka Japan. Everyone is related to everyone… or knows everyone. But I digress. In any case, I also chat up the lovely lady from Misdo, too. By slow degrees, we’ve come to expect each other at Yokomachi every Tuesday at a given time. Pleasantries exchanged, money handled, donut (or three) delivered.

Except, this Tuesday we deviated from the usual how-do-you-dos. She asked me, for the first time, about my hometown and if I was going back for the winter.

I am not.

She expressed her regret, especially since I was from such a warm place (SoCal, for the win!), and happened to glance over at the sole remainder of that day’s special sale: a single Misdo Christmas doughnut. She glances around, slips it into the bag, and in true Japanese fashion makes a single comment:

“You may not like it, but by all means please have this.”

The tears just about started to pool around my eyes. A Christmas doughnut. A Misdo Christmas doughnut. With sprinkles and a cute paper character. On the house.

I have never 感動ed as much as I did that day. I can’t even remember how many formal thank yous I said, just that I was really touched by her winter kindness.

Misdo lady, you are my hero *salute*.

And for the winter part of this Winter Kindness post… SNOW! In all it’s glory! That sad looking snow blob you see is a snow bear. And he’s not sad! He’s just… derpy 😛 Made him with my students and we had a three person snowball fight with no clear winner.

Una Sera di Tokyo and The Aomori Blues

Okay, so I’ve kept my audience of one hanging in the air (hello, mum) in regards to arrival in Japan. Yes, I am finally here. In my new apartment, the only place with decent free WiFi. Common misconception about Japan: there is no free WiFi anywhere. Why else are internet cafes so huge, eh?

But, yeah! Two years to the day since last I left my beloved Waseda days behind and I still felt genuinely at home despite some minor culture readjustments. Had a great dinner at Tari-ya (a legit Bangladesh curry restaurant located next to Waseda University) on the 28th to mark that two years to the day anniversary. Tari-ya was also my breakfast/last meal before leaving Japan two years ago so it seemed that on a literal and metaphorical note it was the best meal choice to make. After three days of orientation, teaching seminars, training, and meeting some pretty cool people, we got put on planes (or trains depending on our destination) and flown to the ‘Blue Forest’ of Japan. The kanji for Aomori denote ‘blue’ and ‘forest’ but the actual meaning of the word from the indigenous Ainu is thought to mean something more like a ‘protruding hill’. The sounds for the word happened to fit closer to the Japanese ‘AO’ and ‘MORI’ better, hence the adoption of the kanji for ‘blue forest’.

As a whole, the prefecture is known for ranking as one of the poorest, least populated, and on average its citizens also have the least amount of post secondary education. But, it is one damn beautiful prefecture. Rice fields for miles, picturesque farms, and forests that look like they came straight out of a Miyazaki film: between the concrete jungle and convenience of Tokyo or the wild daishizen (great nature) of Tohoku, so far I’m enjoying Tohoku. However, there is one drawback: if you don’t have a car, you’re not going anywhere. I wouldn’t go so far as calling it the Kansas of Japan but it’s getting there.

One very important thing to remember about Japan is that there are two kinds of cars: Yellow Plate and White Plate, or otherwise known as Kei-Car and Regular. The Yellow Plate (Kei-Car) is known for it’s unrivaled fuel efficiency and cheap tax rate, however it comes with significant disadvantages as well. Less powerful than a regular White Plate car and more expensive in upfront costs, Kei-Car will still get you around town. The Kei comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the letter K from the word ‘karui’ which means ‘light weight’.

Mass transport system between districts in Aomori is few, far between, and quite expensive. Gonohemachi actually has no trains and only a few bus lines ergo I need a car. The nearest mall is 30 minutes away. The nearest big city is an hour’s drive. To meet other JETs in the area, my only other option would be to spend a fortune on bus tickets as they run a bit higher in price than Tokyo. My predecessors each bought their own cars (second hand, of course) but they guarantee that I would be delusional to think I could enjoy the Aomori experience without one. They’ve all been so helpful giving me the necessities to move in comfortably. So many JETs are leaving this year so they’re dumping their alcohol, left over foods and goods on my JETs. In turn, after making some choice selections, my colleagues are dumping the majority of it on me, which explains why my house looks like a grocer’s and a UNIQLO all rolled into one. So far, I love my colleague Mina, a Cali-esque native of Michigan who has been teaching for the past two years and I’ll be sad to see her go once her contract for the third year is up in summer 2015.

The person from whom I inherited this gem of an apartment, Michael, was the longest JET that Gonohemachi has known, coming in at a 5 year residency and teaching stint at the local elementary and junior high schools. The adventures so far in Aomori have been limited to the city’s bank (where I now have my new swanky account), meeting the mayor (and drinking apple juice with him), visiting Misawa Air Base, having dinner with the man who can make things happen in the city, frequenting a nice bar owned by Yacchan and his Philippine wife, and in general just getting towed around by car so I can acquaint myself with the surroundings.

Currently, I’m scheduled to teach the first English lesson at the community center for adults. It’s extra work that earns me extra vacation days (which I will gladly take over money – my salary is pretty good to begin with and I need time to travel more so than money). Wow. I can’t believe I just wrote that. Normally I’m used to having all the time in the world and not enough cash. But anyway I digress. The work at the elementary and junior high school is what I am paid but I’m more than happy to get to know people, especially the adults (most of whom I assume will be the parents of the kids), and have conversations with them.

And that’s a wrap for now. In the next post I’ll talk more about Japanese summer traditions and cultural events like matsuri (festivals), for which this region is famous. Mexicans understand what I mean when I say: each region has it’s festival and the party doesn’t end!

Over and out 😀

Home-made Strawberry Jam + Time Machine Archives

strawberryjam

Hiking in the morning, making jam in the afternoon, and reading heavy fiction in the evening are some nice alternatives for the people who aren’t too beach crazy. The only way to enjoy summer properly is to partake of all its joys, my dear Californians, and yes there is a world outside of our warm, sandy beaches. Fortunately this is also the time of the year that locally grown fruit makes a comeback: lower in price and oh so ripe. The best way to preserve their full flavor and freshness? In jams! 😀

So this recipe is pretty adaptable for the most part, which is great for people who want to cut back on the sugar. My friend Diana is the greatest at coming up with cooking challenges for us to try but this one topped the cake. Not only was it fairly simple and less stressful than some of our other concoctions (pasta sauce… ahaha o.o) but it’s so much fun! Just the idea of making jam instead of having to buy it – makes one feel self suffient! It’s a family friendly recipe that’s a win-win for everyone. I look forward to seeing what else she’ll come up with next 😉

.:INGREDIENTS:.

  • 2 lbs organic strawberries
  • ~1 c water
  • 1.5 c sugar (white, brown, raw)
  • 1 lemon, squeezed

::DIRECTIONS::

  1. Wash, de-stem, and cut all of the strawberries in half. And, of course, eat a couple of them along the way >.> But not all!
  2. Blend strawberries and water until completely liquefied.
  3. Pour the liquefied strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice into a saucepan and stir sugar until completely dissolved.
  4. Boil this mixture for 30-45 minutes and stir occasionally to keep jam from burning. Make sure to skim the thick, white foam that accumulates, which although tasty is not good for the jam. You’ll know it’s ready once it turns a bright and deep red.
  5. Ladle into properly sterilized mason jars (do not touch inside of the jar) but do not fill to the brim. Carefully seal mason jar and place lid down onto a towel on a flat surface, which will help the jam to seal properly. Once cooled place the mason jars into the refrigerator so that jam can properly congeal 😉

breakfast

Even so this jam will be a little runnier than the kind you buy at the supermarket because there are no artificial additives. But it holds up well and tastes amazing. The amount of sugar listed in this recipe is just right for those who like a tart sweetness. Two cups of sugar (but no more) recommended for people with a really sweet tooth. All in all it’s a pretty adaptable recipe. Enjoy!

And now for some time machine archives from the old blog – those of you who would like access just drop me a line using the contact page: strawberry picking, otherwise known as いちごかり (ichigokari) in Japanese, is a great day trip to take if you live in the city and want to get out for a couple of hours.

ichigokari2 ichigokari ichigokari3 ichigokari_strawberriesichigokari_ella ichigokari_audrey

For about 1,000 yen (approximately $10.00) you can pick and eat as many strawberries as you want in the hothouses for a set amount of time. Most places do anywhere upwards of an hour and a half to two and a half hours of wonderful berry picking and eating.

Adapting to a Foreign Country

Oh my. You’re in for quite a ride… and the best part: there is nothing you can do to prepare before hand. When a person makes the commitment to live and work/study in a foreign country for the long-term things can get a little crazy.

Here is the break down of the four stages of adapting to a foreign country:

Honeymoon Stage

Culture Shock Stage

recoverystage

Recovery Stage

Adaptation Stage

These four well-known stages also closely resemble the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”. Why? I have no idea but the part that is hardest to get through is the culture shock/recovery stage transition which I would associate as rough equivalents with stages 1 and 3-6 of the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”.

Unlike the previous post, which I tried to keep light-hearted and humorous, I will go into a little more detail here on the positive and negative effects of adapting WELL or BADLY to a foreign country. I will use Japan as an example because that’s the topsy-turvy world I had to adapt to within a year for my study abroad experience in Tokyo for the 2011 to 2012 school year.

What I noticed happened to a lot of us as soon as we hit the end of the “Honeymoon Stage” is that we would begin to sink into a form of “WHY JAPAN, WHY?!” attitude anytime something absolutely shocked us – age of consent for sex (13 years old for females compared to 18 for males nationwide with each region having the right to choose any age between 13-20), extremely broad police powers, gender roles, weird pornography laws on what Japanese considered ‘acceptable’ and what not, etc. However, no matter how many times you ask yourself this… fact of the matter remains that there is nothing you can do to change it. Culture is culture and the sooner you accept certain norms as just that, norms, the sooner you can break away from the infinite loop of shock.

Because Japan is primarily (98%) Japanese and even Tokyo has relatively few foreigners compared to other countries’ capitals, any and all foreigners in Japan will be stared at wherever they go. It’s highly uncomfortable and annoying to the extreme. There would be days where I’m sure more than a few of us wanted to shout, “Why are you looking at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head?!” Another example on adapting well to a culture is that we would solve this problem by giving them a BIG SMILE. Traditionally, although looking anyone straight in the eyes is considered rude in Japan so if you find yourself in a situation where constant staring is making you uncomfortable just give them a steady gaze AND add a nice smile. It gets the point across without being ‘direct’ about what you want them to stop doing and it’s positive reinforcement that foreigners are not scary.

Here are some other things you can do (that I tried out) in order to help facilitate the whole ordeal of staying abroad long term:

1. Keep up a routine. Mine went straight out the window as I tried to adapt to a whole new style of living with my first host family and I quickly discovered just how dangerous that can be to your mental and physical health. I went six months without having any set goals to accomplish (like I had back home) and these were often times very simple little things for me such as playing with the dogs, starting/finishing an art/writing project, researching something within my major, reading, etc.

Whether you’re in the dorms, your own apartment, or in a host family, first set up some ground rules for yourself: the most important of which will be to not put yourself second or third. Your well-being is your first priority and if that means spending an entire day raiding the arts and craft shops in the Tokyu Hands building in Shinjuku then so be it. Just make sure you’re responsible about it and know when to put other situations above your immediate (not overall though) needs.

2. Eat your favorite foods. Okay so you’re on a tight budget and you’ve been rationing out the lunch money pretty carefully but one day you will pass by the super market window and it’s going to be there in all its glory: a dinky little 12 oz bin of extra chunky peanut butter. So long as you don’t go out of budget every single day it isn’t bad to treat yourself once a semester to something you really, really enjoyed back home but can’t have now because of the expense. I remember my first peanut butter and banana sandwich that I allowed myself to finally have back in December… I cried tears of joy… even though I used to hate bananas like they were the plague because I had to eat them all the time as a teenager (prone to leg cramps + member of swim team = fail)

3. Watch TV from your home country. No seriously. You’re already watching television shows from your host country. You’re also listening to their music, getting pummeled day past day with their entertainment media, advertisements, etc. and in the process you are losing touch with what’s going on in the other side of the world. One episode a night just before I went to bed is the route I took on the nights I wasn’t busy piecing together some essay or research project. Which is a big step for me if you know me at all (I do not watch TV or movies all that often).

I remember having skype sessions with my family and they would be talking about “so-and-so” movie just came out, “this-and-that” television show, “Senator Blah-Blah-Blah-Blarg-Blarg got re-elected” and I felt like a tiny little island in a wasteland of AKB48 and Prime Minsterialships gone wrong, unable to relate to anything my own family was talking about at all and vice-versa on their end as well.

4. And finally make lots of friends within your host and home culture. They’re the ones who will be able to best explain the new culture and will facilitate your transition while those from your home culture will keep your sanity grounded when it all becomes too much culture shock. They’ll also be going through similar experiences and often times sharing those with another person can make the experience that much more positive rather than negative because there will be lots of comedy involved.