Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Matsuri Time!

The Japanese people really know how to put the “festive” in their festivals. Our town recently celebrated the Autumn Equinox (a national holiday in Japan) with a three-day weekend, parades, fireworks, music, dancing, performances, and more. We were caught in the fray a few times and lucky enough to snap some pictures and video.
The main event of the festival takes place on the castle grounds. We just caught the very end of this event, but it was awesome to see everyone so involved.

True to the holiday, Mother Nature has decided that is it time to cool things off a bit around here. Autumn came overnight, and we have had to pull out our jackets, fluffy socks, and big blankets. We even bought hot chocolate – pretty pathetic, I admit, since it’s not even October. After living in Hawaii for five years, a change of season is kind of exciting; I had forgotten how much I love the fall.

Over the weekend, we were invited to two branch members’ homes to eat something called “takoyaki,” which is made with a egg and flour batter, ginger, green onion, and either cheese, squid, octopus, sausage, or anything else you want to throw in. It is made in a special takoyaki pan. It sounds a little strange, but tastes pretty good and is super fun to cook. My favorites were the sausage and octopus. Here are a few pictures that I took of the process.

Sausage takoyaki

This is the fun part. Each takoyaki has to be flipped over to cook on the other side too. These ones are squid takoyaki.

The finished product, topped with Japanese mayo, seaweed, fish flakes, and takoyaki sauce.

One family also made dozens of California rolls for us - oh so yummy!
One of the teachers from my school, Tomomi-san, came to the branch English class a couple weeks ago and was able to meet with the missionaries last week. James and I were able to go sit in on the lesson. She has been really friendly to me at school, helping me with the bulletin board and coming to my office to talk every now and then. She loves Disneyland too, so we were pretty much instant friends. She went to Tokyo Disney with her family and brought me this awesome Mickey Mouse hat, which I will definitely be wearing all over the park when James and I go next week.

The toaster-oven-adventure-of-the-week this week was chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate chips are hard to come by here, so I bought a cheap chocolate bar and smashed it up into pieces. You would never know the difference. I tried making cookies, but it was inefficient and a little messy because the pan was small and bumpy. So instead, I tried making cookie bars in a bigger, flatter pan. They worked great; the pan was too big for the oven to rotate, so I had to keep turning it around every few minutes, but the final result was a success.

I’m always humbled and amazed when I think of all the kindness that has been shown to us since we arrived here. Our branch has taken such good care of us that it feels like family every time we go to a church activity. For me, one of the most difficult things to get used to in Japanese culture is that most people are not physically affectionate. There are so many people that I would like to just throw my arms around and give a big thank-you hug, but I think it would scare them to death. I guess I’ll just have to learn to love in the Japanese-style!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I'm Getting Old...

As I sit here trying to figure out what to say, I can’t help but reflect on the good life I’ve had. I feel justified now that I’m 26 to use phrases like that. I can’t think of many things that have happened this week. But one of the highlights was my birthday…

Saturday (my birthday) was awesome. We got to bike around the town a bunch and visit some pretty cool places.  We went to one place called IImoriyama. I have been there before, but it was fun to go with Sue. It is the resting place of 19 young Samurai soldiers.  Iimoriyama was the place where they kept watch of the castle here in Aizu from afar. When they saw the castle smoking some hundreds of years ago, they ended up killing themselves. To the Samurai, it was better to kill yourself then surrender to the enemy. I know it all sounds gloomy but it was a very beautiful place. They have a shrine that has a double helix walk way going up to the top floor that was pretty cool too. One of the things that Sue found really interesting was the insects. We found some pretty big spiders there. After taking our time up in the mountain looking at the various shrines, grave stones, and beautiful scenery, we biked around to find a good place for lunch. We found this awesome restaurant (I couldn’t read what the name was) and had some pretty amazing food. I ordered sauce katsudon which is one of the famous dishes here in Aizu and Emily ordered some kind of Karaage which is breaded chicken. When hers came out, the chicken was in a dish above a small flame. It was really cool to see. After lunch we were able to take our time biking around and relaxing the rest of the day.
This is the entrance to Iimoriyama. Lots and lots of stairs.

There were quite a few shrines like this one.

The love of my life standing on a little bridge...  So pretty!

I was told that this is a one of a kind shrine. It has a double helix stairway inside... one side to go up to the top and the other side to walk down.

Not sure who's graves these are... but there were a lot of them. Just beyond the graves was an awesome view of Aizu Wakamatsu.

This is kind of a memorial of one of the Samurai looking towards the castle.

These are some of the grave stones of the 19 young Samurai that committed suicide after they found out that the castle had been overtaken.

This was Emily's yummy Karaage dish. Just underneath the dish was a flame to keep things nice and warm.

Apparently my hungry face... That sauce katsudon was dang good!

Pretty ant. I know it's hard to tell, but some of the ants here are about 10 times the size of ants in the states.

Sorry for the blurry picture... The spiders here are weird. They are very colorful but thankfully not as big as tarantula.

On Sunday, Emily gave her first talk in church on Family Home Evening. It was really good (no surprise there). It was really funny when she got the assignment to speak. The other counselor in the branch presidency gave me a slip of paper that was written in Japanese to give to Emily and told me that he wanted Emily to speak in a few weeks and that English was ok. When I gave Emily the paper, the only part she could read was “English OK.” She had mixed emotions about giving a talk where most of the people wouldn’t understand so she ended up making it an easy-to-understand talk and had me help her with the translation. She did an excellent job and there were many people that said her Japanese was perfect. She has been studying so hard and I am very proud of how quickly she is learning the language; it’s so much fun!

Well, although I didn’t write about too many different events, things continue to be busy here with work and church activities. We love you all lots and appreciate your prayers for our safety!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Language is Overrated...

Being one of the only tall, white, female teachers for miles around definitely makes a person more conspicuous, which increases the chance of being recognized by nearly every 15- to 18-year-old high school student in town. I’m not complaining; instant popularity is fabulous. However, I can already foresee some embarrassing situations taking place when we get back to the States. Here in Aizu Wakamatsu, whether I am in the grocery store, school, or riding my bike down the street, I can be 99.999% sure that every “Hello!” (more like “Hallow!”) that I hear is directed toward either me or James, so it has really become habit to turn, smile, and say “Hello!” back. (This brief encounter, by the way, is always followed by uncontrollable giggling. Who knew that one word could be so funny?) But I know that when we get back to an English-speaking country, I’ll be so used to turning and responding, “Hello!” to anyone’s greeting that I’m sure I’ll get some strange looks as I turn and interrupt phone calls and other private conversations.

Living in Japan with less-than-survival-level Japanese skills has given me some unique insights into Japanese culture and human communication in general. First, rather than getting to know my Japanese co-workers or the branch members by hearing what they say, I am learning a lot about them by how they express themselves. It’s interesting how much you can learn about a person by focusing entirely on the expression of their conversation rather than the content. Second, the Japanese people may be shy or have inadequate English, but they still want to communicate and include everyone in the conversation. This means one of two things for me; either 1) I smile and nod and then say, “Oh, ok!” when the seven-minute completely Japanese conversation is summed up in one English word, or 2) I smile and nod as the seven-minute conversation directly involving me takes place without the summary. I started Japanese classes this week though, so hopefully things will get less fuzzy in the linguistics department.

Funny moment at church today; I had to capture it. This is what happens when you ask Japanese people a question. My visiting teachers were trying to figure out where I live and half the branch got involved in trying to draw a map for them. Definitely a group-based society.
Classes have finally started for both of us. We are really enjoying the time we get to spend with the kids, James at elementary school and me at high school. Most of my lessons so far have been get-to-know-you lessons, so I ask each class to tell me a little bit about themselves and then give them time to ask me questions. This activity has generated some pretty hilarious responses. In one class, there were 14 students and only one of them was a girl. She sat in the back corner of the class and looked completely miserable. When she introduced herself, she said, “My name is so-and-so and I don’t like English.” Great start to our year together. Below are some of the crazy questions I have gotten from students:

*Do you love me?
*Are you pregnant? (That kid is totally failing my class…)
*What is your first impression of me?
*What do you think of So-And-So Sensei?
*What kind of men do you like?
*How many CDs do you have?
*Have you ever been to Miami?

September's bulletin board. It looks much better in real life, I promise. The tree is 3-D and everything. The students are supposed to write their name on a leave and attach it to the board.

My favorite school to teach at so far is called Odaka “satellite” school, meaning that the students from this school were evacuated to Aizu Wakamatsu because their homes are too close to the nuclear power plant in east Fukushima. There are only 23 students in this branch of the satellite school, and the kids are really energetic and happy. The Japanese teacher I work with at this school is great. Her name is Miki and she speaks wonderful English.
My bento lunch from Odaka school; it also came with curry and rice. I thought Japanese people ate smaller portions. Apparently that stereotype was not true. I couldn't even finish the whole thing, but I love the variety in each meal.

Not having an oven has forced us to get creative with our cooking, especially our desserts. Last night, we attempted (quite successfully, I might add!) to make homemade ice cream from milk, yogurt, sugar, and vanilla. Great date night activity and oh-so-yummy. 

Our awesome strawberry homemade ice cream: milk, sugar, strawberry yogurt, and a little vanilla.

My birthday cake...made with pancake mix in the rice cooker. Didn't turn out too bad, actually.
All in all, it has been a great week. We are very blessed to have the opportunity to able to take part in such a grand adventure.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Trip to Tokyo and More

I know that everyone is anxiously waiting to read this post… It was a pretty packed week full of fun adventures. We both thought it might be fun to switch off writing these posts every other week, so this week I (James) will do my best to share our experience.

--  Trip to Tokyo- This past weekend was our one- year anniversary. We had a blast sharing some of it with an older couple from Arizona, Steve and LaNae Nugent. We drove down to Tokyo together in their car. Steve was a little worried about getting lost on the way, especially since this was their first time driving to Tokyo. He asked me to man the passenger seat and navigate. Unfortunately, I had never driven to Tokyo either. However, due to technology and their nice little GPS, we were guided by a British woman’s voice the 4.5 hour trip down to the hotel. We had a fun time, eating various Japanese snacks and listening to the GPS and were amazed with the accuracy of it. Even on the way back, I remember it telling us, “Traffic congestion ahead in 10 kilometers due to burning vehicle.” Sure enough, 10 km down the road there was a vehicle that looked like it had just been put out by fire extinguishers. We were impressed, to say the least. We stayed at a hotel called the Prince Park Tower Tokyo not to far from Tokyo Tower. We got there fairly late Friday night and were actually really exhausted from the drive. The hotel was super nice and our room was awesome. We thought the toilet was pretty funny because it let out water every time you sat on it to help disguise other noises… haha. Anyways, we got up early the next morning and went to a breakfast buffet on the hotel’s 33rd floor and had a great view. After that we checked out and explored our way to the Tokyo Temple. It took us about 20 minutes to get there walking and riding the train. We were trying to make one of the sessions, but barely missed the time. They only have four sessions on Saturday so we ended up doing some sealings. We felt that it was pretty appropriate because that’s what we did exactly the year before. Although the ordinances were in Japanese, we were still able to feel of the Spirit that dwells at the temple. And all we had to say was “hai,” which means “yes” in Japanese. After our time at the temple, we decided to try and walk back to our hotel and made it there in about 30 minutes. We passed a few cool places which included the Australian Embassy. We got back to the hotel and had something called “tendon” for lunch. There were some new things in there that weren’t quite expected. “Tendon” is short for “Tempura donburi” (I hope most of you have heard of “Tempura.” “Donburi” means meal in a bowl.). With the tendon we had miso soup with clams in it which was surprisingly tasty. At the end of lunch we looked around in some of the hotel’s shops and then sent LaNae off on a bus to the airport. She is now enjoying a new grandchild in Mississippi and will return back to Japan the second week of October.
Steve and LaNae Nugent.

Crazy toilets in Japan. They have all these different buttons for the bidet and for making noise.. so weird.

The awesome switch in our room to open/shut the curtains in our room.

The view from our room.

Us on the balcony of our room.

This is tendon. It was really good! Although, the little critter that you see at the top left with long skinny legs was an interesting one to eat.

Yay for the Tokyo Temple!

      --  Teaching at the Elementary level- I was able to start teaching at an elementary school this last week. It was a lot of fun as I team taught with the teacher that I was replacing. For this job, I actually teach at two different elementary schools, Matsunaga and Monden elementary schools. I will be teaching three hours a week for each school, one on Tuesday and the other Thursday. It seems to me that they want me to make English fun so that the kids get excited about it. I really don’t know exactly how things are going to run so I’ll have to keep you posted. Most of the 6th graders I teach were saying how cool I was (nothing new of course… j/k). Anyways, I was able to receive a little instruction from my predecessor and some from one of the teachers that I will be working with. From what I can tell so far, I think it is going to be a very rewarding experience working with the kids and getting to know them.

      --  Cooking adventures- Tuesday night we were able to invite over another JET teacher that Emily knew and one of his friends. It was nice to have people over to eat in our small apartment and was even more fun making the food. Emily decided that she wanted to make Katsu Curry. It’s actually one of my favorite meals. Katsu, also known as tonkatsu, is like a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet. It was a success, thank goodness, so we didn’t have to run to the ramen shop or somewhere else instead. It’s not that I had any doubts; it’s just that I heard from other people that it is a real pain to cook it.  Anyways, it turned out beautifully and was a lot cheaper than going to a restaurant to eat it. The friends that came over enjoyed and we decided that we would have to do it again very soon.

      --  Emily’s Birthday- So a couple weeks ago, we went out with the Nugents and Chizuko to this Indian Curry place. We wrote about it last week, but Emily liked it so much, that she wanted to go back there for her birthday. So on Emily’s birthday eve, I went to go pick up her present from the store and went by this really big dollar store. I decided to go in because I wanted to see what they had. I was able to find quite a few things that I thought might make Emily smile. They included a paper organizer, a birthday head band, birthday banner, and heavy duty scissors. What she really asked for was a paper cutter, so I got her that too. I tried my best to keep the birthday spirit alive and well, so I strategically gave her a present at different times in the day (in the morning, lunch time, when she got home from work, before we went to bed). We ended up enjoying the Indian Curry place again. If anyone comes to visit, we will take you there. Right after eating dinner, we went to Family Home Evening at the Church. For some reason they do it on Friday nights, but we were asked to prepare the message and lesson. We ended up speaking about the different gifts that Heavenly Father has blessed us with, more specifically the spiritual gifts. It was a fun day and was nice to bask in each other’s company.

      --  Volunteering- Yesterday, we went with about 40 other JET teachers to volunteer at a children’s home in Fukushima City about an hour and a half away. We played softball and dodge ball with about 30 kids ranging from about 5 to 17 years old. A lot of the teachers are from places like England, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, and South Africa, so most of them didn’t know how to play softball. That was an interesting experience listening to the Japanese people trying to explain the game. We split up between Japanese and foreigners and every time someone on the foreigner team got out, they wondered why. The Japanese people explained it to them only after they had gotten out. It was really funny. Then we ended up going inside and eating Curry with all of the kids. It was nice to talk to someone of them. A lot of the kids spent time on various JET teacher’s shoulders or backs and played simple English games with them. Everyone had a blast. I was able to talk to the man in charge of the children’s home and ask him if there were places like where we were in Aizu Wakamatsu. He said that there were and gave me some contact information, so I’m looking forward to checking out some of the children’s homes closer to us. At the very end of our time, the boss man gathered all of the JET teachers together and told him how grateful he was for their service. Many of the children had never had contact with a foreigner before, so it was really nice. Just from all the teachers donating money, they raised 34,000 yen which is close to like $450. Not bad for around 40 people donating. It sounds like the JET people want to do it again in the future, so we look forward to that opportunity.

Well, I know that other things have happened this past week. Things to look forward to is a video of our apartment, more about the school’s that Emily teaches at, and whatever other adventures lie ahead of us this week. We love you all lots and pray that you are all doing well.