Japan again

When I left Japan in 2015, I promised to come back for a visit once I would be studying in China. Originally I had planned to go in January, but then the thesis …happened. In April, when my Japanese “aunt and uncle” came to visit, I realised I needed to get a move on and started planning. A few weeks later, with my thesis defended and a date set for graduation, I booked my flights.

Shanghai → Sapporo → Tokyo → Matsuyama → Shanghai

It took a bit of research and several phone calls (budget airlines in Asia can be a nightmare), but I managed to get myself 3 flights for £165 and one free flight using up miles from when I flew to New York. Bargain!?

So at the end of May I flew to Sapporo, where I stayed for a few nights with the family I met on my first ever solo holiday. It was the perfect balance of slow days (we spent some time with their grandchildren, one day we drove to a famous all-you-can-eat melon café about an hour away to find that they had run out of melon) and amazing dinners (sushi, yakiniku, jengisukan), exactly what I needed to refresh. I may not have gone exploring like the previous times I had been in Hokkaido, but it gave me a chance to relax in the mild weather and catch up with my friends.

Melonguma (Melon Bear) at the melon-less melon café in Yubari

From there I made a one-night stop in Tokyo to catch up with two friends. So, basically, more food, and some green tea cocktails to mix it up. I stayed in a hostel in Ginza simply because I’d never been to that district and it was well connected to the airport. Ginza is filled with luxurious shops and very well dressed people, the streets clean and sparkly even by Tokyo’s high standards, and the hostel “Book Tea Bed” was awesome – it had beds hidden inside/behind bookshelves and its own little café.

Green tea and shochu

After that whirlwind trip, I flew down to my town in Ehime prefecture where I had lived and worked. First I stayed with my friends who have two kids. We had a takoyaki (octopus pancake ball) party with some other friends, and spent lots of time catching up. I managed to create drama when I got locked in the house one day, but luckily they found it as funny as I did. They were both working, so I went out and met other friends during the day. Highlights included a doggy photoshoot with my Japanese uncle and desperately driving around Ozu with my friend in search of cakes (our favourite café was closed).


Over the weekend I stayed with my German friend since we had so many plans together – a huge party she had organised so that I could see all of my work friends, a morning of coffee and wandering in the irises in the mountains, lunch at a fancy new French restaurant with two more friends, a get-together with the band, a trip to the coast for kaisendon (fresh seafood rice bowl) and driving as the sun set, and an evening of taiko with the taiko ladies I used to practise with.


The final days were spent with another friend and former colleague at her house – crazy evenings playing with her three kids, daytimes meeting up with other friends for ice cream, helping out in a friend’s new guesthouse, and lots more catching up. It was perfect.


I can’t believe how lucky I am to have so many friends in Japan who were happy to hang out again after two years. I was so grateful for every happy reunion, the moments of solidarity and all the love. I will treasure the memories from the two weeks there until I get to go back and see them all once again.


Leaving Japan

My bedroom

It’s funny that I had my first farewell party six weeks before leaving Japan, and yet now it feels like leaving happened too quickly. For my last month in my little town, I had two or three farewell parties a week. I think I gained a few pounds from all the beer. When it came to packing up and moving out, though, I didn’t feel ready at all. With a team from the Board of Education helping me to take out the boxes upon boxes of kitchen utensils, pieces of furniture, futons, etc. (my predecessor left me too much of everything, and I left my successor too much of what she left me…) to put into storage during cleaning, my apartment was completely emptied in just under an hour. I was overwhelmed seeing it look just as it did when I arrived.

I had a distraction, though, as I had planned to go on one last holiday two days later. I had a blast with my taiko friends playing in a parade at the Oda Lantern Festival, and the next morning I took the first flight to Tokyo, then Hokkaido. However, after a week of fun and madness with friends and my adopted Japanese family in Sapporo, then a couple of days in Tokyo with more friends (I accumulated quite a few over the two years), I came back. Walking to my colleague/friend/neighbour’s apartment from the train that evening, I looked up at my apartment and saw the lights on: the new guy had arrived and moved in. I had avoided thinking about it, but I got very emotional at that moment. My life in Japan was officially coming to a close.

Farewell present from the taiko ladies: the drum sticks I used in our last performance and a handmade pouch to keep them in

Two more days of madness, taiko performances, parades (summer in Japan is festival season) and the inevitable hangovers from the beer-filled after-parties and suddenly it was 5 o’clock on Sunday morning, I was standing in front of my office with my colleagues and people were coming to say good bye. My Japanese dad, my adult students, my neighbours, my Japanese uncle and my mum’s best Japanese friend, my wonderful taiko friends… I cried and cried and cried.

I cried when we got to the airport, when more friends arrived, some unexpected. I cried while they tried to process my overweight luggage, which led to me delaying the flight departure by five minutes. I cried as I had to run to the gate with the airport staff. I cried when I saw my friends lined up at the window the other side of security. I cried when I eventually sat down on the plane. Then I breathed. I flicked through a photo book my friend made me, and no tears were left. When I relaxed into my seat, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky I had been and how incredible my Japanese life was. Oh, and then I saw Mt. Fuji for the first time from my window (I don’t know, it felt significant).


When I got back to England I had two weeks to get my life and luggage sorted and spend some time with my lovely family before taking the train to Paris to find a place to live. I found a flat-share one week later and then university started. The first six weeks of my master have been fun, busy and crazy. People asked me about my experience of Japan but I always replied with nothing more than variations on ‘it was really good’. It’s only now, after my first exam, that I’m feeling more comfortable here and my mind can cope with more than just the present. I miss Japan so much, I miss my friends and my students. But I don’t regret leaving at all. I’m glad that the time has now come for me to start processing the memories of my experience, but I realise already that those two years weren’t the peak of anything. They were just a stepping stone in the adventure that my twenties are shaping up to be. I’m excited for the rest of this year, and I’m excited to go further afield with my studies next year. Life ain’t bad, and I’m really grateful for my time in Japan and the ways in which it changed me, but onwards and upwards!

At the Hokkaido Garden Show 2015
At the Hokkaido Garden Show 2015

Playing in the mountains

Chatting to a friend at a party in March last year, I was alarmed to find that word had already got around about me purchasing a guitar. This friend, the Vice President of our international association, and friends with my mum on Facebook (still not sure how that happened), asked a lot of questions about my guitar playing. When he found out that I could already play, he asked if I would meet some of his musician friends. He said that they had wanted an excuse to meet me, and now they finally had one. A little confused, I agreed. About two months later, my German friend/colleague and I joined them for a drinking party. Their ages ranged from 40 to 65, so there was quite a gap between us, and my Japanese was rudimentary at best, so the start of our meeting was a little awkward. But then something wonderful happened: we started talking about music. Suddenly we barely needed my friend to interpret. By the end of the night, we had found that we had many things in common and arranged for us to join them for band practice one day in June.

We went to the studio in convoy. They led us up a steep, winding road about three quarters of the way up a mountain, then off along a dirt track deep into the woods. And there it was: their handmade studio, sturdy looking but damp the moment you stepped inside. The floor sloped slightly, the walls were covered with material and creative patterns, a little mould was growing on one or two things. It was very unfamiliar yet a seemingly well-used and welcoming little wooden building.


Ahead of time, they had asked me what songs I’d like to practise with them. Having not played for about 4 years (I rarely practised at university), I racked my brain for some songs I could still vaguely remember how to play that they might know. I eventually came up with one Guns N Roses song and one ACDC song. The first practice didn’t go particularly well, but we had a blast. The Vice Pres had told them that since I’m English they should serve me tea and brandy. They produced tea cups and asked exactly how they should mix the tea and brandy (should it be cold or hot? How strong?).

The band's name, Syanka (山家), means 'Mountain House'
The band’s name, Syanka (山家), means ‘Mountain House’

I practised a lot and each time we met we sounded better. I’d never played with a band before. Hell, I’d never even played the guitar standing up. It was all new to me and I loved every moment of it (although I felt the stress at some points, too). My German friend asked us to perform at her 10 year Japaniversary in August, which was so exciting and so much fun. I performed with them again at the Kaki Matsuri (Persimmon Festival) in autumn, and we even streamed it live on the internet so that friends could watch. I was over the moon.

Kaki matsuri

Meeting them for weekly practices helped my confidence to grow, and not only in playing the guitar – my Japanese improved a lot too, and I got to know each of their vibrant personalities. I even became a lot less scared of spiders and mice…

We always talked and joked about playing at my farewell party. When I finally asked them about it, they seemed somewhat reluctant at first, but they agreed. We played four songs. They even convinced me to sing! Honestly, we (especially I) didn’t sound great on the night. We were all really nervous. I was clumsy. I couldn’t sing. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience of being a member of a Japanese blues/rock band in the countryside this year, being part of an awesome group of friends, drinking brandy out of teacups and learning to chill out and have fun away from the rest of the world. I wouldn’t change a moment of it and it’s a memory I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.


Feeling natsukashii

Natsukashii is an adjective referring to feelings of nostalgia for the past. When I first asked, I was told that it directly translates as ‘nostalgic’. I must say that, because I heard it used so often and in so many different contexts, this led me to believe that the Japanese were permanently dreaming of the past. I have come to realise that it actually encompasses many more feelings than its English equivalent.

I hear people say ‘natsukashii’ when they:

  • see something or someone they haven’t seen in a long time
  • taste something that haven’t eaten for a long time
  • hear an old favourite song
  • return to a place they haven’t visited for a long time
  • experience some aspect of traditional Japanese culture

So whereas in English we might say “I haven’t heard this in a long time!”, “I remember this taste!” or “that’s a blast from the past!”, the Japanese can sum up those feelings in just one word.

I was struggling last year when proof-reading an English guidebook about my town. It repeatedly referred to the town and surrounding areas as ‘nostalgic’, especially when referring emotions felt by those coming from the city. At first I assumed that the guide book was trying to get those who had left to come back for a visit, which considering the booklet was going to be published in English made little sense to me. My colleague told me that I had misunderstood when I expressed this to her.

After repeatedly asking why the town was so ‘nostalgic’, I eventually got to the bottom of it: even those who did not grow up in the countryside surrounded by old buildings, watermills and old customs and cultures (as are very present in the small, countryside town I live in), they feel a kind of longing for what they imagine the old days to have been like or what they have always dreamed of experiencing.

To me this is much more than simply ‘nostalgia’ in English, which (in my opinion) is a longing for a past experience or emotion. I find it quite amazing that this one Japanese word can be used to describe a complex feeling in one context and can also be shouted out when that pop song you loved in the 90s comes on the radio in the car. I find myself saying it quite often now, and I would not be surprised if it slipped out after I have left Japan, too.

I think Japanese is a very interesting language, and I have only just scratched the surface in my year and a half here. I want to learn more.


Japanese food

To continue the mini-series I started at the beginning of the month, I would like to introduce this very important element of my life in Japan. Honestly, the prospect of its absence fills me with dread.

I knew surprisingly little about Japanese food before I came to Japan, having formed most of my opinions on a few visits to Yo! Sushi and Wagamama (“Japanese-style” chains in the UK) and a couple of sushi shops in Grenoble during my year abroad. I say ‘surprising’ because most of the American ALTs had a fairly extensive knowledge of Japanese food, with it being quite wide-spread in the States.

I soon discovered that there was an incredible range of Japanese food that I had never even heard of. My colleagues and I often stopped for lunch whilst running work-related errands in August before my first school term started. We ate ramen, kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi), okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake), udon (thick noodles, usually in a light soy sauce/fish-based broth), sara udon (crispy Nagasaki noodles) and gyudon (a rice bowl topped with meat). Having been told that Japanese cuisine was extremely healthy, I was slightly shocked by the general lack of vegetables and the amount of greasy food that I was consuming.


It took me a while to realise that this was not true of all Japanese food. What I ate throughout August was essentially Japanese fast food. It makes sense, of course – how many chain restaurants do you know in your city which sell your country’s most ‘traditional’ everyday food? I cannot think of many in the UK.

Japanese washoku (literally Japanese food, but meaning traditional cuisine) is probably what people are referring to when they talk about the healthy Japanese diet. It is based around rice and miso soup, which usually accompany fish and a lot of vegetables, and sometimes meat. In theory it can contain fried foods, but mostly the many dishes’ ingredients are steamed or boiled.

I do not consider myself an expert on the subject of traditional Japanese food, but I am very interested in it. I find the balance of vegetables, rice and fish to be quite satisfying, leaving my stomach happy. I have also become quite used to my meals being served in two bowls and on several plates, so much so that I was quite overwhelmed to look down at a large plate piled with food when I returned home in the summer.

Funnily, most of my knowledge of Japanese food comes from school lunches. They usually contain traditional dishes, though obviously not of the highest quality, given that they are prepared in bulk at the town’s school lunch centre. I have learned the names of many different salads, soups, meat and fish dishes from school lunches, such that I can usually identify them on teishoku (lunch/dinner set) menus in restaurants, where I can then try the ‘real thing’.


A lot of Japanese people tell me that washoku is no longer popular in Japan (such a statement is usually accompanied by a sigh). Of course, one-plate dishes (like omurice (tomato rice wrapped in an omelette) or karē (curry)) are popular in Japanese homes, but I think that washoku is more popular than people let on. Most of my students (young and old) tell me that they/their parents prepare the classic trio of fish, rice and miso soup regularly.

While I do sometimes try to prepare some traditional dishes at home, I find it challenging. Most things require a dashi broth (made from konbu seaweed and dried fish) or many different seasonings, the exact proportions of which I find hard to judge with my inexperienced palate. But I do try.

Generally, though, I like to go to trendy cafés at the weekend and order their teishoku (set meal). Typically these will either be categorised as very healthy (brown rice, fish) or not quite so healthy (white rice, fried meat like karaage – fried chicken – or fried fish/seafood/vegetables, like tempura). I cannot fault either of them.

276 nanze

I must admit that it took me a little while to get used to Japanese food, as it has flavours I was unfamiliar with, many of which are also very subtle, which can seem bland to begin with. I would say that it took almost a year for me to start to love it. Now I find myself craving fluffy Japanese rice if I don’t eat it for two or three days, or dreaming about spinach and sesame salads, fresh sashimi, grilled mackerel, or even the classic potato and meat combo called jagaimo.

I do worry about how I will cope without Japanese rice (believe me, it is quite special) and fresh fish, but ultimately I think that I can continue to learn to cook Japanese staples even when I leave Japan, because they use such simple ingredients. Honestly, I am quite excited about cooking some of the Japanese foods I love for my family and friends one day, to show them that it is not all sushi and ramen (though even these have their place!), and to give myself a chance to relive my time here. It is most definitely going to be natsukashii*.

* Wait for my next post if you do not yet know this word…


Europe calling

Before leaving for Japan, I told my family and friends that it was just for a year, but that if I really liked it, I would perhaps stay for two. It was always firm in my mind that I would soon get back to business and study for a masters in the UK or France. I told my colleagues the same thing from the start, and again as the deadline for my re-contracting form approached this winter. Although they expressed their disappointment, for the most part everyone here has accepted that going back to university at this time is important for me, and is unnegotiable.

That is not to say that handing in my form in December was easy. I have come to love this country, this town, these people, my students, this culture… In exactly six months I will be leaving, and part of me is already heartbroken. I know, though, that I cannot continue to work for more than two years in a job that is sometimes challenging and usually enjoyable but not the field in which I want to work. It is an amazing experience living and teaching in Japan, but pushing back my future plans and dreams would make me sad and unmotivated, so I am leaving.

Since I handed in the form, I have not stopped thinking about August. Suddenly, everything seems urgent. The past six months have passed by too quickly, so I know the next six will, too. I find myself trying to tick things off my lists and never wasting a moment, exhausting myself in the process, but knowing that I will regret it if I do not take advantage of every opportunity that arises.

Aside from my mad rush to see and do everything, I also keep wondering how it will be to live in Europe again. People so often talk about reverse culture shock when returning home, so I am wondering what kind of experience I will have myself. Over the next few weeks, I want to write a little about what I expect, because I think it will be interesting to look back in eight or nine months and see how different the reality is. In this way, I can also share with you some of the things that I love about Japan and my little town in Ehime prefecture. So here is my first thought to kick off this little series:

Courtesy and politeness

Japanese courtesy and politeness are two of the first things that hit you when you arrive in the country. As the plane lands and drives towards the airport terminal, you notice the ground staff bowing to the plane. If, like me, you arrive with very limited Japanese, you cannot understand a word said to you as you approach immigration, because the airport staff’s language is so flowery and littered with politeness and apologies. Employees in the service industry are trained to be extremely polite and their work goes well beyond what we would consider a normal level of helpfulness in the UK. I know that on my return to Europe, being treated with such respect by staff when I go into a shop or take public transport will be something I miss.

Yet while I appreciate being led to the door and thanked profusely as I leave a shop, deliverymen bowing so low if they arrive more than five minutes later than scheduled that their nose practically touches their toes, or public transportation staff running around like headless chickens on speed if they do not have an answer to your query directly at hand, what I will miss the most is the politeness and kindness of everyday acquaintances and strangers, who are not being paid to make me feel respected and comfortable.

Among colleagues, politeness is highly valued in Japan. Delegating work or sharing responsibilities requires so much apologising and thanking before and after that at first I thought that when they ask someone to do something for them, the Japanese feel excruciating pain. Since becoming accustomed to this, however, I do worry that when I go back to Europe and people do not show this level of gratitude, or when I apologise so much for asking someone to do something that they think that actually I am asking too much of them, I might be in for a bit of a shock.

Of course, there are rude people in Japan. Especially in cities, it is not uncommon to have someone barge you out of the way. Yet my overall experience of courtesy has been extremely positive. If you ask someone for directions, there is a high chance that they will spare you as much time as you need to understand exactly where to go or even lead you to the place you are looking for. As a foreigner, on numerous occasions I have had strangers helping me without me even asking, such as leaning over from their table in a restaurant to explain something, or even asking me if I am ok when I look confused or lost.

I have become very used to thanking people for absolutely everything, by saying ‘sumimasen’, ‘arigatou gozaimasu/gozaimashita’ or bowing, and I am used to people doing the same to me. I wonder how much of a difference I will notice in this respect (in terms of how people treat me as well as how they react to my behaviour) when I move back to Europe, particularly as I will most likely be living in a big city. I am sure that it will be just a little different from my little Japanese country town with its wonderfully polite people… We shall see!


My experience of assisting with English in Elementary School (a sort of part 2 to my “Day in the Life” post)

Back in April last year I wrote about my typical day as a language assistant at a Japanese junior high school. Four of my five working days are spent at junior high, but once a week my schedule is a little different.

My base on that one day is the Board of Education in my town, but at the start of term my schedule is sent out to all of the local elementary schools so that they can ‘book’ me for a visit on that day. Last year this meant that I would visit a different elementary school every week, sometimes two in one day, and would get to play games, sing songs and teach English in other fun ways alongside many different elementary school homeroom teachers.

This year (academic year starting in April 2014), things completely changed for me. Every year, my town runs a programme that allows one elementary school in the area to be designated as the ‘special English school’. This means that one of the two ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher, i.e. me or my American colleague) is chosen to visit that school every week, and this year it was my turn. In two weeks’ time this year’s school will have its final observation day, with teachers coming from all of the local elementary schools and junior highs to watch two sample lessons. Time has flown by and I can’t believe the year with them will soon have finished, but I want to write a little about my experience.

The goal of the programme is to improve the teaching of English in the school. This is important to grasp because it could easily be mistaken for a programme to improve the students’ English directly. Ultimately, it’s about teaching the homeroom teachers how they can make a difference to English education in elementary schools in the future. This means that the teachers learn techniques for teaching simple English phrases and vocabulary, as well as learning how to use the ALT and how to motivate students to want to learn foreign languages. Indirectly, this also leads to the homeroom teachers and their students improving their English through weekly lessons.

This has been an interesting experience for me, because while I am supposed to just behave in my usual ALT way, I’ve been there all year long to watch them progress, to answer questions about English and occasionally about teaching English, and it’s been a fantastic opportunity to really get to know two classes of students (the programme focuses on year five and year six because, at this moment in time, the curriculum only includes foreign language for those years).

The homeroom teachers I’ve worked with in the past year are really good teachers. The difference between them is that one really enjoys using English and one hates it, so I’ve seen two completely different sides. The teacher who enjoys it was enthusiastic from the first lesson, but it has been incredible to watch her ideas change throughout the year with lessons, discussions and evaluations, to a point where her students are excited at the start of the lesson because they know that they will learn real life English and practise it in so many different ways. For example, for the final project we are working on involves the students learning how to order and serve food and drinks in a café.

The teacher who hates English has not particularly changed the way in which he teaches the English content because he quite simply hates speaking and rushes through it, but he has seen the successful fun lesson ideas the other teacher has come up with and has become creative, too. Last month he recorded the students talking about their daily lives so that I could send it to my friend who teaches in the UK for her to show her own students. The students are nowhere near as willing to chat with me because they don’t realise quite how easy it is to communicate, which the other teacher has managed to show her students, but they enjoy English.

That’s something important that I’ve learned this year. It’s not so much a question of teaching perfect, correct English, it’s about showing the students that practical English is fun, useful and easy. Half of the students will start junior high school next year with an open minded attitude because they are aware of the potential of English learning. It’s something I already saw at the beginning of the year when students from the last ‘special English school’ started at my junior high: they are by far the most confident in using English, despite their level being similar to that of their peers.

The reason I think that this programme is successful, though, is that the teachers’ views of English have changed. Whereas before it was a bit of an unknown area and a chore, they now seem to realise that it is just an extension of the rest of their teaching. They are talented and created, and this does not have to be forgotten in English lessons. It’s ok not to teach perfect English, as I said before, so long as you inspire the students.

For me the whole experience has been heart-warming. The students are so comfortable with me now: they try their absolute best to communicate with me in English, and I meet them half way in Japanese where necessary. They realise that what they learn in the classroom is actually useful. And we’ve become friends. I am always so happy to see the delight on their faces when I tell them that I am free after eating lunch with them to play in the playground. It’s going to be hard when I am no longer scheduled to visit them every week. I’ll definitely be making the most of the next few weeks!