Five Times The Pink Panther Accurately Summed Up What It’s Like Teaching English Abroad

And it looks like I’m staying for one final year in Japan. Two years was just the right amount of time to get my life sorted; unfortunately, I’m not quite ready to say good-bye just yet. It’s been a long road. It’s a longer one to come. The papers are signed, the decision made. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, JET 2016-2017.

A lot of my friends in the States have, at one point or another, expressed curiosity on what it’s like to teach English abroad. The myths and realities as expressed through the five times that The Pink Panther suddenly became too real for words…

1. WE DO NOT QUIT!!!

“Your life must be so glamorous, living abroad and teaching English to Japanese kids!” Glamorous is one word for it. And then there’s this…

…I do enjoy every minute of it even though I wouldn’t call it glamorous 😉

2. Why would they do something like that?

“I hear Japan is soooooo high tech! You must be going to all crazy-amazing robot conventions every weekend and never want to come back to the US, right?” The hard cold reality is…

…and not only that: my office is (somehow) still running on XP. Why would they do something like that?!

3. Why do you think they’re dressed like that? For fun?!

Doing anything for the kids on Halloween is basically along these lines. Also applies to generally trying to blend in with society when the clothes just look different on you than on the cute models (TTwTT)”

4. It is one of my specialties…

So, I can do things, I swear, I can! Sometimes, though, I can’t show them off perfectly because of cultural differences.

Can’t bake half the Viennese pastries I learned how to make because Japan and it’s non-baking culture. It’s still fun trying, though 😀

5. I thought you were ordering in Italian.

That moment when you suddenly become Vincenzo Roccara Squarcialupi Brancaleone at the local Starbucks… or anywhere, really.

Happy Friday, everyone!

Happy 2016 And The Great Disappearance Act

Spent a blissful two and a half weeks with my family in California and close friend in Texas (shout out to Kimmy dearest for taking me to NASA and feeding me brisket!) for the first time since moving to Japan. In the spirit of the holidays, my technology was turned off in order to properly revel in family and friend time. Needless to say, I ate EVERYTHING (the trespass of which I was already admonished for during Wednesday’s ballet class #YOLO #ITWASWORTHEVERYCALORIE #MYTUTUSTILLFITSIFISUCKITIN), but even better than food was the quality time I spent among the people who love and support me most in the world: my parents.

My dad took a significant amount of time off of work to take me to all manner of doctor’s and dentist’s appointments, drive me around, play games well past both our bedtimes, and watch all the movies and TV shows that we needed to catch up on. Mum’s schedule, being what it was, allowed for mostly afternoon jaunts but I’m grateful for every precious second I spent in their company. Oh, yes, and my sister 😉 She and I put up with each other marvelously well, all things considered.

So that brings me to the month before I was in the States, when the internet pulled a great disappearing act. What happens when you’ve been paying your bills on time, when your router set isn’t broken, and the only problem showing up is “Check with your provider”?

Something I learned about Japanese internet: you will be dealing with three separate companies (Finance, Internet Provider’s Provider, and said Internet Provider) none of which have any helpful English lines in place (NTT claims it does; does not; and only NTT Finance had anyone remotely fluent enough to provide the assistance I needed via the Finance side).

I dedicate this post to Mari from NTT Finance, who not only bullied NTT into releasing my information to me (thus saving me an extra seven business days per interaction, a total of 21 once totaled), but generally got S*** done. I have never met anyone with such a go-getter attitude this side of the Pacific. Where everyone else was like, “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that and I’m not going to ask my superior because this is the one way things have always been done”, Mari’s response was very Disney “Let’s see what we CAN do about this problem”. Sadly this only got me as far as: Well, it’s not NTT’s fault. It’s your provider’s.

To which my brilliant response was: I thought NTT was my provider.

And a witty repartee ensued.

NTT: No. We take care of the finance side and NTT East provides the service to a provider who then has you pay for the glory of signing a contract with them.

ME: So you haven’t choked my internet and it’s not a financial issue?

NTT: That’s about right, Ms. Customer.

ME: So who’s my provider?! I only ever received information from NTT!

NTT: Uh, we can’t disclose that information.

ME: Whaaaaa…. How am I supposed to solve anything?

NTT: …

So while I keep receiving bills for internet I’m theoretically supposed to be able to use… I don’t actually have internet and I am now currently leaching off my workplace.

I hope to update with all manner of Foreign Film Friday posts that never got published and photos from the holidays and travel information I amassed over said holidays… all of which are stuck on my American phone, but I can’t until my WIFI is back. Work doesn’t have WIFI, we just have the LAN connection chord of doom.

Hopefully this is resolved. Soon. >.>”

Resolved as of 11:40 am. Three cheers for being taught how to hack into your router and resetting the damn thing. YAY! \O/

Apple Pie Recipe <3

  
Japan is not known for its baking culture. Houses and apartments are not fitted with ovens. The ovens that are sold in tech stores across the country come in the following specifications: small and more for microwaving functions than anything else. You can warm up a can of beer. You can roast some veg. Frozen personal pizza sizes are okay. But you can’t make anything bigger than cookies, cupcakes, or really tiny pies.

Something else to keep in mind: the flour sold at most supermarkets will be of the cake making variety. For those who don’t have enough experience with different types of flour, most of you will have become accustomed to utilizing all-purpose. It’s like the middle ground between the moist and crumbly type used for cakes and the ‘sturdier’ kind that is the base for most breads. In Japan, all-purpose means cake flour or something akin to a midpoint between all-purpose and the cake variety.

So now that the peak of apple season is waning, sour apples go on sale – the last of the last, the unwanted of the least desirable. And they are the best for baking. This recipe calls for pate brisee (the all buttery, all fattening, all delicious French version of pie crust) and as many apples as you can lay your hands on.

For about 800 yen, you can tabehoudai (all you can eat) and take as many apples as you can carry. But that’s in Hirosaki. In Aomori City, where we conducted our yearly apple picking ritual (or, as ritualistic as the second year running can be), the nearest apple farm we could find charged 300 yen for taking home 3 apples of your choice (a bargain considering they sell one for almost that same amount at the supermarkets) and 500 yen for on-site tabehoudai. There would be no omochikaerihoudai this year. We coughed up the equivalent of $15-20 for apples that they sold on-site.

  

::For the buttery PATE BRISEE::

Ingredients

Also known as, le pie crust. Makes one crust. Double the ingredients for the pie covering, or leave as is to make apple crumble.

~1 cup of flour (and some extra for rolling out)

1 tsp of salt

1.5 to 2 tsp of sugar

1 stick of unsalted butter, diced (butter should be as cold as possible)

2-4 tsp of ice cold water (add on tsp at a time and use your common sense to gauge if it needs more)

 Directions

1. Cut your stick of butter into cubes, then stick in fridge or freezer. The colder the butter, the better the outcome. Although it’s quite difficult to blend completely frozen through butter, so make sure to take it out before it grows icicles.

2. Mix flour, salt, and sugar together. Spatula or hands, either is fine! Personally, if I can feel the flour, I am better able to tell if the ingredients are mixed in. I am not a visual person.

3. Take butter cubes out. Toss in about half. Work the dough as lightly as you can with your fingers. You want the butter and the flour mixture to crumble together. Once all the butter has been incorporated (don’t forget the other half), add a tablespoon of cold as the Arctic Sea water at a time. Continue mixing with your fingers until the crumble turns into something resembling dough.

4. Lightly dust your work space with flour. Don’t over knead the dough but, you know, give it a good old shaping until it looks like a circular blob. Pat said blob down. Roll out from the middle outwards in equidistant directions around the starting point. If you work with clay, basically what you do to clay to flatten it out.

5. Should be about a quarter inch thick or so. Or maybe about the width of a quarter. I forget but in any case once it’s as flat as either one of those measurements, lay it out over the pie or quiche pan that you will use, pat it down a bit, and cut off the overhanging parts.

6. On to the apple mixture!!!

::For the APPLE FILLING::

Get ready to have your apartment smell like a spice merchant’s ship on its way to Europe.

Tart baking apples (if like me, you have no idea what this means when you read these words in fancy food blogging recipes… it means use your favorite apples if you don’t like Fuji or the sour variety)

Apples, as many as you like, sliced

2-3 tbs of flour (ours was a small pie so two sufficed)

1/2 cup of sugar

1/4 tsp of the following ground spices: nutmeg and allspice

1/2 to 1 tbs of cinnamon

About 1 tsp of vanilla extract

1. Toss all ingredients by hand. Make sure to evenly coat all the apples.

2. Pour mixture into your waiting pie crust, also make sure the liquid at the bottom makes it into the pie dish.

3. Cover mixture with the second rolled out pie crust. Cut out four to five fancy leaf looking openings on the top. Or stab with fork, which is also the height of class and style.

4. Pinch the edges and cut the excess.

5. Bake on 350F for the next 55 minutes as you enjoy the scent of the holidays flooding your living space. Chill before serving.

Serves about 3 people if it is a small pie baked in a small Japanese oven. About 5-8 people if baked in an American-sized oven.

Bon appetit!

Destination X

Wednesday’s are always a fun day. Everything from three-second rule gaffes during home economics to messy self portraits in art and, of course, English lessons. If there’s an opportunity for me to attend a workshop with the kids, I know within five minutes of entering the office. As far as JET experiences go, I wish more schools were like this. Especially since all the down time with the kids makes for greater trust once they graduate to the middle school, where I teach all levels.

So it was with a mixture of anticipation and amusement that I stood before my favorite sixth years. I’ve come to trust them in many ways: asking them to help me research local dialects spoken by their grandparents, taste testing food they’ve prepared solo, water balloon fights, recommendations for places to visit within the prefecture. Now, I was about to integrate a lesson with real world application…

“So we’ve learned a lot about other countries in this unit.”

A couple of shy yeses pop up like groundhogs in the spring. Mostly it’s quiet. I take a deep breath.

“Where should I go on my next vacation?”

“Eh?”

“Nani?”

Their teacher translates. They look back at me, half-amused and half shocked.

“I’ll go anywhere – except war zones – I’ll take pictures to show you and I’ll bring something back for everyone to see.”

Everyone reacts. “MAJI DE!”

This is the equivalent of NO WAY. Also sometimes translated as YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME and YOU’RE CRAZY.

“No, I’m 100% majiME (serious).” Luckily my lousy attempt at a pun goes unnoticed…

“France!”

“Egypt!”

“Brazil!”

“ISLAM!”

We do a 7 minute review on why Islam is not a country. And yet they’re still too enthusiastic, excited even, to pay attention.

“Okay, okay! How about next week we write down suggestions on a slip of paper and I’ll draw one from a box.”

“Maji.”

That seems to be the theme of this semester: crazy English, crazy adventures ;D

We’ll see how it goes but at the moment all we’ve decided is that this trip must take place by Silver Week 2016 and I must take many pictures with myself in front of famous places and bring something back.

Apple Farming

The fifth graders from the nearby village are tasked with helping a local farm raise the famous apples we are so well known for.

Uncharacteristically warm for September, our day of apple farming began with a brisk up-road walk; the knee was not amused but somehow we made it work. It’s about now that the weather will begin to cool drastically. One Californian’s winter is an Aomorian’s autumn…

Le sigh.

But it’s that same frigid temperature which make the region so rich in the agricultural production of apples so I can’t complain too much.

The lesson came complete with free apple tasting at the end of three hours of picking bugs and leaves off the baby fruits. Apple connoisseurship dictates that sweet is better than bitter, if we are to go by the farmer’s expert opinion. Although a few kids were brave enough to voice their opposing tastes, it seems as if the majority vote is that sweet is always better for business. I can see how this makes sense in Japan where the best flavor (whether savory or sweet) is that it lie somewhere in the real of harmoniously neutral. Also there are no real ovens here… Sour apples are thus under appreciated and unloved.

Does anyone else have a similar experience in their prefecture? What’s something your kids grow?


  
  
  
  
  
  

Cuore Hachinohe

This sweet little cafe has no official website, though it should! It’s not close to city center, in fact just getting there feels like a drive through the backwoods of the countryside if you’re going via Gonohe, and the parking lot can hold only three cars at a time.

But if you can make it and you don’t have to hunt down parking away from the cafe, it’s more than worth your time. The atmosphere is adorably organic: everywhere there are handmade crafts decorating the window sills, the tables are made of wood, and even the pasta is made fresh. Because it’s family run operation the opening hours should be checked in advance (most Tuesdays seemed to be closed according to their calendar). Another quirk, if the menu is read correctly, coffee (without a food set) is only served after 2pm.

On the upside: all coffee comes with GORGEOUS art! ❤

Uriba-18-2 Kawaragi, Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture

Honshu in 1 Week: If there’s one thing I learned…

…about Japan during this whole trip – or so Kimmy said as we were finally en route to Tokyo – it’s that this country is extremely mountainous.

This was after the hundredth dozen set of tunnels we’d passed through. As beautiful of a scenery as we experienced in the early days of the trip, the second half was marked with progressively longer stretches of inter-mountain tunnels, one after another. This was the last leg. Really, I’ve been blessed with such amazing, adventurous friends. This is our short tale of one last hurrah on the open road, our last 7 days as partners in crime…

DAY 1: On the Road Again

Load the car with a year’s worth of luggage, blast a deafening amount of music through the speakers, and drive for as long as humanly possible, or twelve straight hours to be more exact. Mix in an unhealthy dose of Lawson’s coffee and stir liberally.

Oh, conbinis. How you shall be missed. They practically ensured that we could continue driving well past bed time. Sadly, it was the lack of 24 hour gas stations that finally grounded us at 2am in Niigata City at a Michi no Eki (roadside station). Otherwise we would’ve driven until reaching Fukui.

DAY 2: There Be Dinosaurs in Fukui

Having driven the entire length of the first day, I was relegated the duty of morning rest in the backseat while Kim and Elena sped past prefectures until early afternoon, after which I was much recovered from the caffeine crash.

We managed to make it past Kanazawa in record time, well after the lunch rush and the timing worked out like a charm.

Travel Tip 1: Start early in the morning. We left Imabetsu by 5pm because of work obligations earlier in the day but we would have covered so much more ground if we’d started early morning.

But don’t be fooled, this type of travel is not for the finicky or faint of heart. Michi no Eki are fluorescent lit and bug infested. Cicadas in the toilets, Aragogs in the ceilings of the bathrooms… and then there’s the little matter of what was once known as the Circadian Rhythm. Curtains and modernity have largely made it possible for humanity to ignore the call of nature, or rather the call to awake at the wee hours of 4am by summer standards. If I could do it all over again, I would have invested in a sleeping mask.

Travel Tip 2: However, when it can’t be helped or for the late night to early morning drivers there is a sizeable toll road discount if the car is equipped with an ETC and so long as drivers manage to exit by 4am.

For every stop we made, be it for gas or bathroom breaks (or as became more frequently: for both), we were set back anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Factor in breaks and switches if you’ll be on a particularly tight schedule, otherwise if time is of little to no consequences: carpe diem!

Fukui is known for potatoes, mackerel, and dinosaurs. Home to the adorable Fukuisaurus (a legitimate dinosaur, I assure you), there is a science center and dinosaur museum with enough exhibits to keep adults and children occupied all day.

We had only a couple of hours to kill. BUT IT WAS THE BEST!!!!

Not only were “traditional” dinosaurs (the ones we all knew and studied as children) represented, but the museum had a special exhibit for dinosaurs found and dug up on the Asian continent and Pacific. Fukuisaurus was among them, that adorable if derpy hadrosaur.

From the museum and our well-deserved rest, we hastened ourselves back onto the road. Time was of the essence. We had already set back for an extra night, a unanimous decision in a bid to see more of Shimane by the next day.

And it was well worth our sacrifice for an extra night in Tokyo.

DAY 3: The Land of 8 Million Gods and 1 Bunny Rabbit

Izumo Taisha, Matsue Castle… of the list of possibilities, including a possible seaside excursion or trip to a lighthouse, we narrowed down on the two closest. Kyushu had to happen that same night – or never, the hostel was kind enough to let us arrive a day late and we didn’t want to be unreasonably mucha.

Travel Tip 3: For a more luxurious experience, and given enough time, camp your way across Japan. Michi no Eki are a last resort and for the purposes of this trip, given our particular situational parameters, there were our only resort. But a nature resort (no pun intended), is a gorgeous way to get the woodsy back roads experience of Honshu. Make reservations a month in advance.

By the time we crossed the bridge into Kyushu, we were weathered a little worse for wear but still spirited enough to freak out for a hour later as we drove to our little hell-side hostel in Oita Prefecture. Also, the humidity was working wonders for our skin.

DAY 4: The Hells of Beppu

Never been so glad to find myself in hell before, in a manner of speaking. To have made it safely to our primary goal, exhilarating in its own right, received a further energy boost as we appreciated the natural geysers and mineral hot spring waters known as the Hells of Beppu.  Japan’s small scale version of Yellowstone NP, is impressive in its variety of geologic activity if not land masse. The colors were brilliant from milk white to blood red and crystalline stained glass blue.

There was one hell that got away, pressed for time we had to leave for Fukuoka City where Kim was able to partake of some second to last minute Pokemon Center shopping. Once we were all done with omiyage and merchandise, it was yet again time to hit the long road to Miyajima for a night and early morning exploring the geology and scenery of the island.

DAY 5: 1945

Hiroshima is a beautiful city. Lovely riverside walks wind you through a cityscape of modernity and to the vestiges of a fateful day in 1945. The past and the present merge perfectly into each other in Hiroshima and there is no better place to witness it than at the Peace Memorial Park and the attached museum which chronicles a single day of infamy: August 6, 1945.

The museum packs an emotional and psychological punch so be prepared to spend an hour or so sitting on a a quiet bench in the park after your visit. Educational in its history and uplifting in its message of eternal hope, I highly advise all Americans to pay the 50 yen to enter.

Travel Tip 4: The museum has free parking.

DAY 6: Nagoya

 From Hiroshima we made our way to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. Yet again, we were attempting to tick off another Pokemon Center off of Kim’s list, all the while oblivious to the fact that much like the hell that got away there was a Pokemon Center that got away as well: Hiroshima’s. Sigh. But, it gives us reason to go back some day, right?

Travel Tip 5: THROW OUT ALL YOUR TRASH AT EVERY REST STOP! And remember: that which you buy, yes even that deliciously chocolatey Parm bar, you will have to trash later.

Nagoya is the center of technological advances, Japan’s Silicon Valley but specifically in robotics. However, we didn’t have much time to explore at this point. Kim had a plane to catch early the next morning and we still had to find a suitable place to ditch the car in Yokohama (wherein there was yet another Pokemon Center that needed to be crossed off the list).

But after a lovely breakfast as Denny’s, we hit the city mall for clothes shopping and the last Pokemon Center.

Travel Tip 6: Pack for an appropriate number of days. Otherwise you’ll be living out of collectible prefecture T-shirts.

Nagoya reminded me of a less crowded and slightly shinier version of Tokyo. Reminded myself to try living there sometime in the future if possible.

Something must be said about Michi no Eko on the East Side of Honshu though. Where on the Sea of Japan side they’re few and far between, not to mention run down, the Pacific side has some amazing rest stops. Food courts, Starbucks, more gas stations… in short a luxury compared to driving on the west side.

DAY 7: Haneda Airport and Aomori Bound

Dropped Kim off at the airport early in the morning and stayed with her until she went through customs.

Travel Tip 7: Ignore Siri once you’re sure you’re on the highway Tohoku-bound/back to wherever you’re going. She attempted to be helpful by rerouting us through Tokyo. It took us THREE HOURS to find our way though traffic and back on the toll.

In case you missed it from Travel Tip 7, this is where the nightmares began. Not only did Siri seem to think driving on the mean streets of Tokyo would mean a faster exit from the city (I assure you, it was quite the contrary), she also somehow had the bright idea that driving straight through Fukushima’s SEASIDE was somehow okay.

For those of you who do not recall, Fukushima Prefecture’s coast was the site of the failed nuclear reactor. So at this point Elena and I had to create our own custom route, constantly looking ahead to make sure that Siri would not derail us from our path.

It’s an eerie experience driving in the dead of night through a prefecture that’s been the sight of a disaster. There were few lights in the towns and cities. We even cut the air conditioning early to make sure we didn’t breath any of the outside air, a precaution we took because of genetic predispositions to cancer and an unwillingness to tempt fate. Once we were past the line separating Fukushima from Miyagi, we resumed our air conditioning and relaxed.

By the time we rolled up to the hills of Gonohe, it was dawn. We watched the sun break it’s watery red glow across the horizon at the local park and then crashed from the physical and mental exhaustion for a good couple of hours.

Adventures in Shimane Prefecture

   
    
    
    
    
    
 

Yesterday. Shimane in one day. No rest for the adventurous……

Edit: okay now that I’ve had time to sleep and process everything, time for some explanations.

Shimane Prefecture is known for Izumo Taisha, a grand shrine dedicated to the god Okuninushi and is the seat of the gods’ meeting for one month of the year. 

According to legend, Okuninushi is the deity of good relationships and marriage, a status he achieved after helping out an adorable white bunny with a bad skin condition and winning the hand of the princess of Inaba.

The castle is well worth a visit as it is one of the twelve original castles that have gone through little renovations or alterations. 

And lastly, the tree trunk. It saw 320 years of history before being chopped down in 2007. 

   
    
   

Zao Fox Village

   
    
    
    
    
    

 An hour south of Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture is a village of foxes of all colors and shapes and sizes. Zao Fox Village is a haven where most of its resident foxes can roam freely on the grounds; once revered as gods of rice growing, foxes are now considered Vernon by most of suburban society. Finding them in the wild is rare so while I normally do not willingly go to zoos or places where the animals are kept caged for long hours of the day, Zao Fox Village deserves some attention for attempting to keep the fox population from going the way of the native Japanese wolf (by which I mean extinct).

Babies and the sick are kept in separate cages, but the adults who are still fit to walk around have the run of the place.

For ¥1,000 plus ¥100 per feeding bag, you gain entry to the main adult enclosure. To hold baby foxes or baby rabbits/guinea pigs, you’ll pay an extra ¥300, but it’s well worth the experience and is sure to keep human kids entertained for the day.

And of course, I finally learned what the fox says…

They sound like mewling cats ;D