Monday, March 25, 2013

Sakuragawa & Foxx Den v2.0

Back again folks, with another action packed adventure!

I was up early to head to Sakuragawa-shi (桜川市)in western Ibaraki-ken (茨城県).  Sakuragawa borders Tochigi-ken to the west and is part of a small group of cities that include Chikusei and Yuki.  The town is ringed with mountains and is famous for its stone work made from locally quarried stone.  There is also a doll festival in late winter, but I've missed it this year so y'all will just have to wait!   

My mission today was to meet the Board of Education and get settled into my new apartment.  I drove myself on the highway from Mito to Sakuragawa, following my ALT coordinator Mieko.  Highways in Japan are interesting in that they are all toll roads.  When you're getting on the highway, you stop at a booth and take a ticket; when you exit the highway you go through a wicket and pay for your trip, determined by the distance traveled.  Cars can be outfitted with an electronic device that pays automatically but I didn't have that luxury.

 It was a lovely drive through the Japanese countryside, I got a nice dose of nature and really cool classic style Japanese architecture.  Sadly I didn't have a chance to take any photos- two hands on the wheel!- but I'll make up for that later. Sakuragawa is apparently renowned throughout Japan for its large houses and gardens, and for good reason.  Some things remind me of home, some of it is different, but all of it is heart-stirringly beautiful.

There seems to be a real push for sustainability out here as well; I saw a couple of wind turbines on a nearby mountain and several solar arrays.  I'm a happy fox knowing that at least some of my energy use comes from renewable resources!

My meeting with the B.O.E. went really well, they like me quite a bit.  School is on spring break at the moment and starts back up in a couple of weeks, so I will get to meet the teachers and have a formal introduction to the B.O.E. in the intervening period. After that, we drove to Oyama in Tochigi-ken to pick up the key for my apartment then back to the new den!

The apartment itself is very cool, I have a remote control heater/air conditioner, video intercom to the front door, insuite washer/dryer combo... lots of goodies!  I made a a video tour which you can see here.  After getting the internet set up and making sure that everything worked properly, Mieko left me to get settled in.  I unpacked and made myself at home, until I realized that I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast.

I headed towards the local grocery store, which is actually a short walk from my place, but I brought the car to get some driving practice and to help carry home the new pots and pans I was picking up.  The store itself was pretty neat- vegetables are quite inexpensive, mushrooms are downright cheap.  Packages of enoki mushrooms that go for 2-3$ back home are 98円.  Soba noodles are likewise very cheap.  A tub of shiro miso is less than half what you pay in Canada.  The toughest part was reading labels on the spices and sauces... I'm going to have to make a friend or two to help me out with that, I think!  Overall, however, I'm loving the food here!

The store also provides its old cardboard boxes to customers in lieu of plastic bags, which is an awesome implementation of the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' principle!  I juggled my stuff all the way back to the car in the steadily increasing rain and was ready to get home and enjoy a nice sushi dinner- the grocery store sushi here is comparable to the quality sushi back home, at half the price (or less!!!!)- aaand.... nothing.  The car wouldn't start.

I'd left the headlights on the entire time I was in the store and the battery was dead. Ooooh Foxxy...

Turns out, this hiccup was just the multiverse giving me what I needed.  I've been really apprehensive about being a stranger in a strange land, especially approaching people with my limited Japanese ability.  Now I had to, just to get my car home.  At the first auto shop I found I bounced around through broken Japanese and broken English before I managed to explain my problem.  Sadly, they didn't have the equipment to help me, so they wrote a note explaining my problem and sent me to the gas station down the street.  By that time I'd worked out how to explain a dead battery a little better in Japanese (it turns out I'd been using the wrong verb!) and got help quickly.  The attendant drove me back to my car and jumped it, making me the most relieved I'd been in quite a while!

I'm really happy with how welcoming and friendly everyone here has been... its refreshing and has definitely made the transition easier.  I'm still a little apprehensive about making first connections, but if all the people are this friendly I'm sure I won't have any problems!

Sunday, March 24, 2013


As it turns out, the problem with my first flight was caused by a bird flying into the left engine of the plane.  JAL was great, putting us up in a hotel for the night and making sure we were well looked after.  Sadly, this put me 24hrs behind schedule and late for my ALT training.  I arrived on the evening of March 19th, and cleared customs with little trouble.  Finding my way around Narita was a bit tricky; thankfully the airport had wifi and I was able to find the counter to buy a bus ticket to Mito-shi in Ibaraki-ken.  I'd finally made it to Japan! 

I arrived at my hotel in Mito at 10.30PM and couldn't quite figure out why the lights in my room wouldn't work.  It turns out you need to put the tag attached to your key into a slot by the door to close the circuit and turn on the power.  This, however, I did not discover until the next morning.  I was exhausted and crashed out right away.

The next morning I was up really early- in fact, I've woken up early every day I've been in this country.  I got myself cleaned up and headed to breakfast where I had the Japanese set- natto (fermented soybean- interesting stuff), nori, miso soup and some rice with a sunny-side up egg and cabbage.  After that was the beginning of ALT training with Heart School, which was full of information and definitely helped to prepare me for the task ahead.  The other ALTs are an eclectic bunch, but very nice folk and I've made some good friends already.  Fortunately a few of them speak better Japanese than I do, which has really helped!

The ALT coordinators must have really liked me as well, because I was given an extended contract and placed in Sakuragawa-shi, Ibaraki-ken rather than in Saitama.  This is all well and good, as I was hoping for a longer term anyhow! The placement does require me to drive, however, which is a bit scary.  They drive on the left here in Japan and the school had me do some driving practice to acclimatize.  Right at the end, I freaked out the Japanese lady, Megumi, who was riding along but overall I did pretty well. Driving here definitely feels a little weird- the turn signal and windshield wiper switches are reversed and I have to be extra attentive when turning. I don't think I'll have any problems with it though.

One of the things that I've often heard about Japan is that the cost of living is very high.  In my experience, so far, this has not been the case.  Perhaps this holds true in downtown Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, but outside of the big cities prices are comparable to North America.  Regular gas is around 145円/liter (approximately 1.50$CDN), and my hotel room is 4,000円 per night which also includes a free breakfast.  If you're looking for western style food- meat, potatoes etc. - the price is rather high;  Japanese fare, however, is reasonably inexpensive and occasionally quite cheap. This is also apparent in portion size.  Though portions are noticeably smaller than what you will find in North America, Japanese dishes are definitely more robust than their western counterparts at the same price point. 

Quite frankly, that statement about portions holds true for pretty much everything here: the cars are smaller, the streets are smaller, the rooms are smaller, the dogs are smaller and the people are smaller.  This is, in my opinion, one of the most appealing things about Japan: life is efficient and having had to share such a small space has made people very polite (at least outwardly). 

My experience with Japanese people has been good so far.  Customer service is *amazing* every where you go- polite, quick and attentive.  I've done my best to use Japanese, though I have a lot of practice ahead of me, and the people really seem to appreciate it.  I've come across a sense of nervousness from Japanese people, especially if they feel that their English ability is not very good.  I empathize entirely and do my best to communicate (smile and nod!, try out my Japanese).  Occasionally you'll run into an older person who would rather take a different elevator than get in with the gaijin, but that's pretty rare.

The weirdest part is being an object of interest everywhere I go, even if people pretend they're not looking. Its similar to being on stage... all the time! I'm watched everywhere I go, like the hot girl in high school.  I can feel it, and I totally sympathize.    Strolling past a crowd of girls starts off a rush of giggling and chattering: すごい! 高い!かっこいい! (Wow! Tall! Cool!)  Sometimes they try to say hello; I wave and smile, which starts more giggling.  Even the guys are checking out what I'm wearing, how my hair is done, how I carry myself.  I'm not sure I'll ever get used to it!

Tomorrow I leave for my job placement, Sakuragawa-shi.  According to Wikipedia Sakuragawa-shi has a population of about 50,000 which is extremely small by Japans (and my own!) standards.  I'm driving there from Mito, following the ALT coordinator for my area.  I'm still a little apprehensive driving in Japan, but I'm sure I'll manage just fine. 

Wow, it seems like I've gone on quite enough- I have many more stories to go over but I'll save them for more specific posts in the future.  Keep an eye out for my pictures on facebook and I'll take a video of my new apartment when I move in.  Ciao for now!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Japan? Nah, Just Cool My Jets in Van!

The excitement of embarking on my adventure to Japan has certainly been tempered by the anxiety that comes with immersing in a place completely foreign. Leaving ones home is never an easy decision to make; even as I boarded the plane to Tokyo my stomach roiled with uncertainty.

The Japan Airlines Boeing 767 took its time taxiing into position for take-off, reminiscent of the meandering route that brought me to this place. As the pilot applied the breaks and revved the engines, I lay back in my seat, closed my eyes and let the reality sink in. I was actually heading for Tokyo!

With the engines at full power the brakes released and we were off! I felt the familiar satisfaction that I get from flying begin to rise in me; part childlike excitement, part adventurous spirit. Sadly, I had little time to savour it.

*clunk* *WHAM!* At full speed and nearly airborne, the pilot slammed on the brakes. There was a collective scream from the highschool kids behind me as we all lurched forwards against our seatbelts. "皆、坐れ!大丈夫です大丈夫です!" (Everyone sit! Its OK, its OK!) the flight attendant shouted to calm the alarmed passengers.

I sat back in my seat with a wry smile and thought to myself: "Are you fucking serious?!" I was finally ready to go and lo! uncertainty returns!

"Its a rollercoaster," I commented dryly. The middle aged Japanese man next to me chuckled. I dont think he speaks much English.

As I write, we're on the skirting of the runway while the YVR firetrucks 'cool our brakes.'

So, here I sit, literally cooling my jet(s), still not sure if this is really gonna fly.

At least the JAL air service crew is awesome!