Road-tripping to Kansai: Kyoto Part 2 and an adventure to Osaka

Greetings readers! I hope you enjoyed my last post about traveling to Kyoto! Now it is time to talk about what we did in Kyoto and Osaka!

On our first full day in Kyoto Lexi and I first adventured to Fushimi-Inari, one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. Our Airbnb was just a short 15 minute walk away, so it was super easy to reach. We stopped at a lovely little coffee stand near the shrine and chit-chatted with the owner who was super nice. Coffee in hand, we walked up to the shrine. The road was lined with shops and food stands, which were super tempting. If Japan is good at anything, it is for sure street food. They have grilled meats, takoyaki, taiyaki, mochi, and more. So much deliciousness. Anyways, after walking past all this temptation, we arrived at the shrine. Thankfully it wasn’t too busy, so we were able to take some nice pictures without there being huge crowds. For the sake of time, we decided to forgo climbing up the hill to the other parts of the shrine and instead ventured onto our next destination: Kinkaku-ji.

Kinkaku-ji is one of the most famous temples in Japan. If you have ever seen a gold pavilion in pictures of Japan, you are seeing this temple. The temple grounds used to be the villa of a rich guy and became a temple after his death according to the wishes of his will. The name Kinkaku-ji literally translates to “Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, and it definitely lived up to the hype. It was quite beautiful and also not too crowded. The weather was also gorgeous, so it was the perfect day to admire the pavilion and the grounds around it. Check out some photos of it below:

After Kinkaku-ji we took a bus to the area around the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which was also near the university that Lexi studied at for a year. She showed me a bit of the university, and we happened to see students coming from their graduation ceremony. All the girls were dressed up in very nice kimono, so it was cool to see them. It was also interesting to see the difference in how we dress in the U.S. for our graduation ceremonies vs how they dress in Japan. The women just dress up in nice kimono and the men wear nice suits, but they don’t have any caps and gowns.

Our next stop was the park around the Kyoto Imperial Palace, where we got to see the sakura (cherry blossoms) starting to bloom. Lots of people were in the park around the trees taking pictures, but it wasn’t too bad. I think it was a lot less crowded than it would have been if COVID-19 wasn’t a concern. Throughout our whole trip we felt that things were less crowded than usual, though there was still a fair amount of people visiting Kyoto. Usually Kyoto is crazy touristy, especially during sakura season, but it wasn’t that crowded when we were there, which was nice. Anyways, Lexi and I thoroughly enjoyed doing our own mini photo shoot in the sakura, so check out some photos below:

look at this yummy parfait!

The rest of the day we just meandered around downtown Kyoto and got some delicious food. We had walked around quite a lot, so we returned fairly early in the evening to our Airbnb and relaxed while waiting for our friend Jonathan to arrive in Kyoto. Once he arrived we got a quick dinner at the nearby conbini and chilled the rest of the evening.

The next day was by far our busiest and longest day. We started off fairly early in the morning back at Fushimi-inari to beat the crowds. This time we decided to actually hike up the hill through the whole shrine. It was a pretty cool walk through all the gates up the hill, but man, did that hike kick my butt. It definitely showed that I am out of shape, but it was also a hike composed of thousands of stairs. Definitely exhausting, but worth the view over Kyoto and the experience.

After our hike we hopped on a train and headed for Osaka. The two cities are really close together, so it took only about an hour on the train to central Osaka. Once we arrived, we went in search of food. Jonathan knew of a really good ramen shop that does tomato sauce based ramen, so we decided on that for lunch. Let me tell you, it was one of the best bowls of ramen I have had in Japan. I seriously love the fresh ramen here. It does not even compare to the instant ramen back home. This ramen was so unique because of the tomato sauce, so it felt like a Japanese/Italian fusion, and it was super delicious.

Upon finishing that heavenly ramen, we headed for Osaka Castle. This castle is one of the most famous castles in Japan, and it definitely did not disappoint. The interior of the castle was unfortunately closed because of the virus, but we could still admire the castle from the park around it. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, so we thoroughly enjoyed meandering around the castle. Check out my photos:

Our next destination was to the bustling downtown area of Osaka. We stopped by a nice big Pokemon store and relaxed in a cafe, where we then met up with our friends Julie and Se-Gil, who were staying in Osaka. We then went off to explore around the Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori shopping districts. This area is a pretty cool place to go in Osaka if you like shopping. A lot of shops are built into these covered “arcade” style shopping streets, so while you are technically outside, you are covered by arched ceilings over the street. We stopped in at a building that had a pinball arcade, which was pretty nifty. They had pinball machines from so many movies, both modern and classic, such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, the Avengers, and more.

After all our exploring, it was time for some food, so we headed for the restaurant we had a reservation at. On the way we stopped at the famous “Running Man” sign and took some photos. After getting a bit misplaced, we arrived at the restaurant, which was a tabenomihodai place, which means all you can eat and drink. These places can be a bit pricy, but you can eat as much as you want and drink as many alcoholic drinks as you want. The food comes in smaller amounts and is basically a smorgasbord of appetizer like foods that everyone shares, and the drinks are a bit weaker, but it can still be a good deal. It’s the perfect places to enjoy lots of food and drinks, and to generally have a good time socializing. This restaurant was a bit disappointing though, because they had weird restrictions for order, like only allowing us to order a certain number of dishes at a time and charging us extra if we didn’t finish all the food. They also raised the price of our meal from what the menu said, so we were a bit miffed, but didn’t feel like arguing it. I definitely wouldn’t go to that place again, as it was the worst service I have ever received in Japan honestly. However, we still had fun stuffing our faces and drinking, so it was still a good night.

Once we finished our meal, it was back to Kyoto for us. It had been a very long and exhausting day, but lots of fun. I think my Fitbit registered almost 30,000 steps, which is crazy. As soon as we got back to our Airbnb we headed straight to bed so that we could be rested for another day of exploring Kyoto, which will be featured in my last post about our trip. I will try to be quicker about writing about that, but with all this corona virus craziness, I haven’t felt much like writing. Plus, my days are a bit busier with school going back into full swing here. Stay tuned dear readers!

P.S. If y’all have any feedback on my blogs, or any suggestions for something you would like for me to write about, please drop a comment! 🙂

Road-tripping to Kansai: Kyoto

Greetings readers! I hope that this post finds you well amid all the COVID-19 craziness going on right now. I know most of you are probably stuck at home, so hopefully you enjoy this post about my adventure to the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara) a month ago. This post will talk mostly about going to and arriving in Kyoto, so you can stay tuned for another post on Kyoto, as well as Osaka and Nara.

Here in Japan, the school year ends in March and we are given about a two and a half week long vacation between the semesters. During this time, teachers still have to go to school and be at their desks, what we call “deskwarming”. However, we can use our vacation days easily during this time. So, some friends and I decided this would be a good time to go on an adventure. Since the cherry blossoms (sakura) usually start blooming at the end of March, we decided that the Kansai area would be a nice place to go and see all the sakura.

My friend Lexi and I primarily planned the trip, but we were joined at various times by other friends. Instead of taking a train or a bus, we decided to do a road-trip instead. It ended up saving on costs, and was a lot more fun that being stuck on a bus or train for 4-6 hours. For those of you who may not know, Japan has a pretty nice network of expressways that make it convenient to drive from city to city. However, you have to pay tolls on these roads, and it can be crazy expensive. For example, in my prefecture, it is about $20 to drive from the expressway entrance in Azumino (the closest stop to my village) to Ina, which is about an hour to the south. To go all the way from Azumino to Kyoto can cost around $75 in tolls for only about 4 hours of driving! It’s crazy!

To help lower our costs, we recruited our friends Se-Gil and Julie to drive with us there. They decided to stay in Osaka and focus on the other Kansai cities like Kobe and Nara, while Lexi and I focused on Kyoto. However, they decided to tag along with us to Kyoto and take the train to Osaka from there (which costs about $10). It ended up lowering our costs per person to about $40 for tolls and gas, which is $30 cheaper than a bust and about $60 cheaper than a train. We also hopped off the toll road early and drove along Lake Biwa the rest of the way into Kyoto, which saved us more money, though it did add an extra hour. However, the view of the lake was amazing so it was worth it. We also stopped in a cool town called Omihachiman, which had a nice shrine and some cool canals. Driving to Kyoto was a heck of a lot more fun than taking the train or bus. We jammed to some music and just had a blast in general. I love road-tripping!

Once we arrived in Kyoto we parked my car at our AirBnB, dropped off our luggage, then headed downtown in search of food and drinks. As soon as we stepped off the train I loved the vibe in Kyoto. I like living in smaller cities, but I do like to visit a bigger city. Kyoto has a really nice feel to it. It is a mix of old with modern and chic; and I loved it. We roamed around in search of dinner and decided on a super yummy Thai restaurant where I had an amazing curry ramen. After that we checked out two really cool bars. The first was called I Love You More Than Gin, and was this super tiny hole in the wall that served some crazy concoctions. It was quite expensive, about $16 for one drink, but was definitely worth it for the experience.  The drinks were almost a work of art in their design, and we got to watch as the bartender made them. It was my first time having gin, which is very interesting, but quite good. I definitely would go there again for the experience.

After that bar, we went over to another really cool place called L’Escamoteur, which was a French speakeasy style bar. I really enjoyed this place as well. It was pretty small, but the drinks they had were super good, and sometimes they did interesting tricks to make them. I had a fruity drink with tequila and chili powder, and it was amazing. Like the other bar though, you definitely paid for the experience at this place because it was super expensive. For a drink that wasn’t really that large it was about $16 again, so I only had one. The atmosphere was super cool and the bar tenders were really fun and nice to talk to. They were all foreigner, so I was actually able to chat with them. I was able to try cognac for the first time because one of them overheard me say I had never tried it and gave me a free sample of it. I would definitely go here again!

After this bar Se-Gil and Julie headed over to their AirBnB in Osaka. Lexi and I stopped by a local conbini (a convenience store, which in Japan are super awesome) and grabbed a drink and a snack. We then went down by the river and just chilled and chatted while we drank. One thing I love about Japan (and some other countries I’ve been to like Germany), is the fact that you are allowed to drink in public. You can take an alcoholic drink and go chill in a public park or along the river and it is perfectly fine as long as you aren’t disturbing anyone. I love being able to relax along the river with good company and a drink. It is quite nice.

For the sake of not having this post drag on and on, I will end this post here. Stay tuned for my post on exploring more of Kyoto and its amazing temples and shrines, as well as a post on wearing a kimono for the first! 

Everyday Life in the Chaos

Greetings readers and welcome back. I hope that this post finds you well in the midst of all the chaos of COVID-19. I know that for many of you life has changed drastically in the past month. I hope that you are coping well with all the sudden changes in your lives. In this post I am going to talk about my life in Japan right now.

First, an update on the situation in Japan. While Japan was one of the first countries to react to the spread of the virus by shutting down schools for the month of March, there haven’t been the same levels of lockdown here as in other countries. We haven’t had the same official numbers of infection as other nations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a serious risk here. Part of the reason for lower numbers is that Japan has not been widely testing people, and from what information I have seen, is only testing those with serious symptoms. Within the past few weeks, the numbers have been rising, but it is not at the same level as other countries. A state of emergency was declared in some prefectures, but there is still no wide scale lockdowns happening. Some people are social distancing, others aren’t. Many are still going to their in person jobs, and therefore are still taking public transit. There has not been the same large scale shift to working at home here as there has been in other countries. Aside from everyone wearing masks, hand sanitizer stations appearing at businesses, and toilet paper disappearing from the shelves, life seems to mostly be continuing as usual for most of Japan.

It seems that the biggest reaction to the virus has been the closing of schools. As I said, schools across the nation were shut down for the month of March, though graduation ceremonies were still held for many schools, mine included. This ceremony is one of the most important events in the lives of Japanese people. Many schools limited the number of people who could attend and drastically shortened their ceremonies. My junior high school ceremony was held on March 17. Since I am at a very small school with only 30 students, our ceremony did not change much, though very few family members were in attendance. The students all had to wear masks, and the chairs were spread out, though not six feet apart. The elementary school ceremony on March 18 was much the same. While some precautions in regards to health safety were taken, things carried on in an almost normal way.

My April English Board

March 18- April 6 was our spring break. In a separate post I will write about the trip I took to the Kansai area (before the virus situation was considered more serious) during this time. However, because the number of cases in that area spiked while I was on my trip, my school had me stay home for the rest of the week. The following week I was back at my desk. I used that time to study Japanese, and prepare my English board for the month of April.

The following Monday, April 6, was the opening ceremonies at my schools. This event is also very important. I attended the elementary school ceremony in the morning, then headed over to the junior high school. However, after being there for about an hour, I was sent home for the rest of the day, so I did not attend the opening ceremony for the junior high school. The reason? I had been developing a weird feeling in my chest, almost like a cough was building. It’s hard to describe, but something felt off. I never actually coughed, and had no fever, but to be safe my school sent me home and had me stay away from school for the rest of the week. This Monday they had me stay home an additional week. As I write this, I no longer feel that weird feeling in my chest, but I agree that it is better to be safe than sorry. Maybe it’s nothing, but I wouldn’t want to risk the health of my co-workers and students in case I am actually infected. We will see what will happen next week as to whether or not I will be back at school.

It has been very difficult to stay productive when I am stuck in my home all day. I have not been asked by my teachers to prepare many class materials, so I don’t have much work to do. I try to dedicate a good amount of time to studying Japanese, but it can be hard to stay focused. For me, too much time means that I am much less productive. I find it difficult to stay on task and not be distracted. However, even if I was at school I wouldn’t be doing much different since I don’t have a lot to prepare for my classes. I am allowed to read at school and study, so I have been pretty much doing that while at home.

I can write basic sentences like this; “I love kittens and puppies!”

Outside of my “school hours” at home, I spend my time reading, watching tv or movies, or crafting. I have recently gotten into watching K-dramas (Korean tv shows), which has been slightly addicting (no shame though). I may also have a slight addiction to K-pop, which has sparked a desire to study Korean (and has also made me consider going to teach in South Korea down the road). After living in Japan for over eight months, I have also found myself getting into more and more anime. Since I am studying Japanese, it’s technically a learning experience, right? It is actually quite satisfying to be able to understand some of the Japanese while watching anime. Even though its just a few words or sentences here and there, I am proud to be able to understand anything. While I want to progress faster than I am in Japanese, I am proud of the progress I have made. I can understand many basic sentences, can read/understand probably around 100/150 kanji, and have mastered the hiragana and katakana “alphabets”. I really enjoy learning Japanese and hope that by the time I leave Japan that I can speak a good amount of it. Wish me luck readers! Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world!

Even before the virus, living in Japan has given me a lot more free time to pursue my hobbies. I am able to read a lot more than I could while I was in school (aside from when I was studying abroad and didn’t have a job outside of school). As of today, I have finished 37 books this year. That’s right folks, you read it correctly: 37 books. I don’t think I have ever finished so many books in such a short time (aside from when I was a kid and read small books). There are three reasons I can read so much. First, so much more free time in my evenings, and even time at school to read a bit. Second, I listen to audiobooks. While some of you may not consider this “reading”, I do. Listening to audiobooks allows me to read while I do other tasks. I often listen to books while I craft. And third, when I read a physical book (or e-book with my kindle), I am a very fast reader, so I can go through books pretty fast.

Since coming to Japan, I have been able to devote more time to crafting than before. I am someone who cannot sit still without having something to do with my hands. I can’t watch a movie or listen to a book without having a craft to do, or playing a game on my phone. I brought along my quilling supplies. I also learned how to crochet. I wasn’t able to bring my knitting looms to Japan, but I was able to buy some crochet hooks and quickly picked up the craft. Crafting is relaxing and gives me something to do with my hands, and I have been able to make some nice gifts for friends and co-workers. Check out some of my completed projects.

Here are my two current crocheting projects:

So there is my update on my life right now in Japan. I have been trying to avoid getting stressed out by the state of things in the world, but it is difficult. It is hard to be so far away from my family and friends during this difficult time. I was also really looking forward to a vacation to Okinawa at the beginning of May, but that has been cancelled. I am thankful though that I still have a job and health insurance here in Japan. I hope that you all stay safe and healthy. Soon this nightmare will be over and I will be back to adventuring again. For now, I just be staying home, reading and getting way too invested in anime and K-dramas. I’ve got some other posts in the work, so I will try and get those up in the next week or so. Later gators!

A Snowy Day

Welcome back readers! Here we are, already at the end of February. Time sure is flying by! It has been almost seven months since I arrived in Japan, which feels so crazy! It seems like I just arrived. I haven’t been up to too many adventures lately, but I have a few things to write about. This post is about the nice trip I took up to Iiyama to see the snow festival with a bunch of the other foreigners in the prefecture.

I started out my trip nice and early with an hour long drive up to Nagano City. I parked my car at a friend’s and we walked to the station to take the train up to Iiyama. We were pleasantly surprised by the train we boarded. It was kinda old and fancy looking, with tables and booth style seats. We were expecting just a normal commuter train. However, it ended up being more expensive, so we had to pay an extra ¥500 for it, so that was a bit annoying. It was a more comfortable ride though, and we got some pretty nice views out of the window. It was snowing beautifully, so the views of the mountains and the countryside were quite wonderful.

Once we arrived in Iiyama we waited for the other foreigners to arrive and explored the snow festival for a bit. It was held around a community/performing arts center, so they had a bunch of vendors. We got some yummy baked goods from a local vendor, then headed to a shop to learn how to make some washi postcards. Washi is a traditional type of Japanese paper made from the inner bark of the gampi tree. We were shown how to take the fibers that are sitting in water (absolutely freezing water by the way) and scoop them into frames. You have to dip the frame (which has a screen on the bottom) into the water and scoop up the fiber, then shake out the water. It is quite difficult to get the fibers to spread evenly. You have to do that a couple times, all without ruining the spread of the fibbers already in the frame. It was very challenging, but very cool.

Once we scooped enough of the fibers into the frame, we were allowed to put some pressed leaves and other greenery on the fibers in whatever design we wanted. The worker then took the frames and put them over this sort of vacuum that sucked most of the moisture out of the fibers. We then had to leave our postcards there for a few hours to dry, so we headed back to the snow festival to get some lunch and look at the snow sculptures.

Though I live in a mountainous prefecture, my village isn’t as high up, so we don’t get as much snow. This winter has also been pretty mild so the snowfall has been even less. So, as a good Wisconsin girl, imagine how happy I was to be in a place that actually had snow that was sticking! I do love winter, so I have missed having snow. I may or may not have been the person who started a snowball fight on the way back to the festival. I mean, the snow was perfect for compacting into a snowball.

When we got back to the festival we first admired all the cool snow sculptures. It was awesome to see all the different creations people had made out of snow. And they were also huge. Check out some photos of the sculptures.

After looking at the sculptures, we grabbed lunch. There were all sorts of food stalls, and I settled on a delicious oven baked margherita pizza. We then ventured back to pick up our washi postcards. I was pretty proud of how mine turned out, and I definitely want to do it again.

Me and my taiyaki

We spent the next few hours just venturing around the festival and enjoying more of the local vendors. I have developed a love for taiyaki, which is essentially a fish shaped pancake with filling. That’s the closest description I can come up with. They are quite delicious, and I nabbed me a caramel one this time around. We then stumbled upon a little sledding/tubing hill they had made out of a giant pile of snow, so of course, being the adults that we are, we asked if we could join in the fun with the other Japanese children. I haven’t been tubing in years, so I enjoyed my ride down that hill, though it was very short. It was a nice way to round out a fun day in Iiyama.

That sums up my trip to Iiyama. The rest of the day was spent travelling home, then binging The Dragon Prince on Netflix (highly recommend to everyone). Overall, a pretty lovely day. Stay tuned dear readers for another tale of my adventure from this past weekend. Also, if you have any ideas of things you would like me to write about, I would love for you to leave some comments to give me ideas to write about something else!

Let It Burn

Greetings readers and welcome back! I know it has been a while since I last wrote, but life has been a bit busy, and I haven’t had much that I felt like writing about until now. I’ve been in Japan for 6 months now, which is crazy when I think about it. Time sure is flying by! I had a nice little break from school when I went home to the US for Christmas. I thankfully got to see my whole family and spent lots of time with them, my pets, and some friends. It definitely went by way too fast and now I’m back in Japan (well, I’ve been back for a few weeks by now). Anyways, I finally got my act together and decided to sit down and write about something fun I did two weekends ago. I present to you: the Togakushi Fire Festival.

Ever since I arrived in Japan, I had been hearing about fire festivals and how cool they are. They are pretty common here in Japan, so I figured I would hit one up eventually. Some friends and I were going to go to a cool one in October, but it ended up being cancelled because of the huge typhoon that came in that weekend. That typhoon actually caused a lot of damage in a part of my prefecture because it caused levies to break on a river. It was pretty bad. Anyways, it was finally time to go to one of these cool festivals I had been hearing about.

Togakushi is close to Nagano City, so I made plans to meet up with a couple friends and stay the night in the city. I ended up discovering that I could have been traveling to Nagano City much more efficiently when making plans to potentially carpool. Previously, I had been getting to Nagano City by driving to my friend’s house in another town (a 40 minute drive away), then taking the train to the city (another 45 minutes). In looking at the driving routes, I found out that it only takes an hour to by car from my village to the city. Honestly it probably costs the same in gas to just go directly to the city, versus driving to another town and taking the train. From now I think that I will start driving and save myself the hassel!

I ended up driving myself up to the city because we needed an extra vehicle to take some other friends to the festival. Once I arrived, I met up with some friends for ramen. I was so glad when they suggested ramen, because I had been craving it. Honestly, ramen is probably my favorite food here, and I’m not talking about the ramen packets you make in the microwave. Fresh ramen is heavenly. Anyways, after lunch we went to my friend Lexi’s to park our cars and drop off our stuff, then we went to do some shopping.

Once we had completed our shopping, we went to grab dinner. We decided on omu-rice, which is essentially a thin, lightly cooked omelette with rice inside and some sort of sauce on top. Usually, its a ketchup or demi-glace sauce. It’s quite delicious.

After dinner we met up with some other friends, then headed off to Togakushi. The drive was ok, but I’m not a big fan of driving up mountains in the dark. We had to drive up some fairly steep switchback roads, but thankfully the roads were clear. I would not want to drive on those in snow, especially going downhill. After driving to the wrong location in Togakushi, we were directed to the correct spot, which was a little away from the main ski resort.

you can see the daruma here

The festival was centered around a big pyre that had a bunch of doll head things called daruma. According to what my friend told me and some internet research, when you buy a daruma at a temple, you take it home and make a wish and color in the left eye of the doll. When your wish is fulfilled, you fill in the other eye. At the end of the year, you bring the dolls to the temple and they burn them. I am assuming that that is what all the dolls were on the pyre. These type of fire festivals are common at the beginning of the year and symbolize cleansing.

We arrived a bit late, so we missed the initial lighting of the pyre, but we arrived when it really started blazing. A lot of people were gathered around the fire watching, and they were doing some sort of announcement, which I didn’t understand as it was in Japanese. After watching the fire for a bit, we saw that they were handing out free cups of sake, which I sadly did not get to enjoy. Japan has extremely strict drinking and driving laws, so you can’t have any alcohol and drive. So alas, I did not get to partake. Once my friends got their sake, we watched the fire a bit more. I was amazed at how hot it was. We were probably standing 10 feet away and it felt like my face was burning. However, on a cold winter night, it did keep us nice and warm.

The festival also had free amazake and mochi, which I believe is common to festivals like that. Amazake is a sweet, fermented rice drink. The taste was pretty good, but I didn’t love it because there were small bits of rice in it. If y’all know me, you know I’m a big texture person, so chunky/pulpy drinks aren’t really my thing. We also snagged some of the mochi, which I was also not a big fan of. I don’t mind flavored mochi, but the plain kind is not my thing.

While we snacked we watched some taiko drumming and fireworks, then discovered that the festival had an adorable mascot! Japan sure loves having mascots for places, and they are usually all pretty cute. This one was no exception. We went total gaijin (foreigners) and snagged a picture with him. A small crowd of Japanese people watched us, and my friend heard them comment that it was amazing that a group of foreigners would visit for this. Little do they know that we all live here, haha.

The last cool part of the festival was when they gave out mochi on long bamboo sticks. We got excited and thought they were giving out marshmallows to roast, then realized that: 1. We are in Japan 2. This is sort of a ceremonial event and 3. That they don’t really eat marshmallows here so it’s probably mochi as part of the ceremony. I was a bit disappointed at that. They didn’t end up having enough for everyone, so we only got a few, which was fine since I didn’t want one anyways. I did try a bit of my friends’ but I couldn’t have eaten one of my own.

The mochi roasting rounded out the festival, so after hanging out by the fire a bit longer (which was still incredibly hot), we decided to head back to the city. We ended our night with a little trip to Mr. Donut, which is basically the Dunkin’ Donuts of Japan. After our little late night snack, we headed back to Lexi’s to hit the hay.

All in all, it was a pretty cool event. The fire kept us nice and warm in the cold, and it was cool to see everything all lit up in the snow. Japan has such cool traditions, so I am definitely looking forward to discovering some more cool ones! As always, thanks for reading! See ya next time!

School Festival

Welcome back dear readers! I’ve hit the four month mark here in Japan, and time is getting away from me again. I have a few things to catch y’all up on, so let’s start with my junior high school’s festival. I am a little late on writing about it, as it was over 2 months ago, but I think y’all might want to hear about it because it is a cool cultural thing here in Japan.

Since school started back up in the beginning of September the students had been preparing for this event. It is one of the most important events for students here, and they spend a lot of time and effort in preparing for it. The school festival gives students the chance to show off their talents and all the hard work they are doing at school.

The festival began in part on Friday with some sports activities. The students were divided into two teams, with the 6th graders from the elementary school coming over to join. They then did a variety of sports activities, such as a running relay and a partner “activity relay”. Us teachers just watched, but it did look like it was a lot of fun for the students.

Saturday was the main part of the school festival. The day commenced with an opening ceremony, and then the students spent time presenting on various experiences they had had in the past year, such as class trips and projects. After their presentations, we got to explore the exhibits they had put together of some of their work. They displayed art projects, home economics creations, and more. It was really cool to see the students be able to display their work and have their parents and other community members come to admire it. The teachers also had to submit some sort of craft for a display, so I quilled something. It was also cool to see the different talents of my fellow teachers.

After the exhibition we took a break for lunch, then reconvened for my favorite part of the school festival. It was now time for the performing arts segment. It seems like they take performing arts pretty seriously here in Japan. Every student sings in the choir, and many of them play instruments. Many teachers also play instruments for special events. There were four different events for this segment: chorus, band, a puppet show, and taiko drums. Each part was equally awesome.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chorus event in particular because I got to participate in it. Each grade sang their own song, and then two grades combined for another song, then all the students sang together. The PTA sang a song (which included me), and then all the teachers and students sang a song together. I was really excited to be part of these two songs because they were in Japanese, so I felt really accomplished in singing them. After the teacher and student song, however, it really became my turn to shine. Since the vice principal knew I was a singer and had previously invited me to sing with her as she played the piano, I was asked to sing one of those songs for the festival. I do love to perform, so I said yes. I chose to sing Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver, which is one of my favorite songs. It is also a popular song in Japan, so it was something we knew the audience would enjoy. I was super nervous to sing by myself, but I was also excited. It went really well, and the audience even clapped along for the whole song. It was such a great experience.

After the chorus event, the band played a few songs. Only about half of the students are in the band (so about 15 students), but they still play amazing. Even though they are junior high school students, they sounded better than most American high school bands that I’ve heard. They are very dedicated to excellence in music, which I love. After the band, many students then did a taiko performance, which was so amazing. Taiko is traditional Japanese drumming and I had never seen it before. I was amazed. If you have a chance, look up a taiko performance; they are pretty cool.

The last performance was the puppet show. And I’m not talking little puppets. They were pretty large puppets, and some of the students dramatically read the story as others moved the puppets. It was so cool because it was a traditional Japanese story. Thankfully my friend Lexi had tagged along for the festival, and since she has a high level of Japanese she was able to translate a bit for me so I could understand the gist of it.

Overall, the festival was such a fun experience and it was so awesome to see all that my students had and could accomplish. I was really impressed. I am really excited to see what they will prepare next year.

After the festival most of the teachers went to an enkai, which is basically a food and drinks party for all the staff. I hitched a ride with the English teacher down to Matsumoto, where we joined the other teachers at a pretty nice restaurant. I am not sure how many courses the meal was, but at least six separate small dishes were served to us. Of course, picky eater me did not like much of that meal. However, (and you should be proud of me, Mom) I did try a bit of fish, lotus root, and some salmon on rice (I drew the line at eating the salmon eggs that were served on top, and picked those off). This was a pretty big accomplishment for me, because I am a notoriously picky eater who refuses to try anything.

Accompanied with the meal was a wonderful thing here in Japan known as nomihodai, which basically means all you can drink, including alcoholic drinks. This restaurant didn’t skimp on the alcohol, which was pretty nice. Usually nomihodai drinks are weaker than normal, but if you drink enough of them you can still get pretty intoxicated. I had at least three strong mixed drinks, and a few glasses of beer, so I ended up getting pretty buzzed, which is normal for an enkai. I’ve heard stories from friends about their fellow teachers getting pretty drunk at these events, though no one at mine got really drunk. Part of what contributes to this is a cultural thing here where other people are often filling up your drink for you. At an enkai it is customary that you do not pour your own drink, but fill up the drinks of the people around you. Someone will usually take a look at your drink then and fill it up for you. It is a nice tradition, except when you’ve only had like two gulps of your drink and they are topping it off again. It can get a little hard to gauge how much you are drinking then.

After our dinner at this restaurant we then relocated to an izakaya, which is a place where you can get drinks and some nibbles. It’s kinda like a tapas bar, and is pretty much the equivalent of going to a restaurant like Applebee’s in the US and ordering some half apps. The izakaya we went to was pretty delicious, and we got a few more drinks there. Unfortunately, me and the secretary had to leave earlier than everyone in order to catch the train heading back towards the village. We then had to take a taxi back to the village since it is 15 minutes from the closest station. As soon as I got home I hit the hay because I was beat. The enkai had been the perfect way to end a pretty wonderful day. I am excited for the next special event at my school!

I’ll try to catch up on a few other things I have done here before I head back to the US for Christmas, so stay tuned readers!

An Adventure over to Kanazawa City

Greetings readers! My predictions have come true and I truly am horrible at keeping up with my blog, so I have a lot to catch y’all up on. I can’t believe that it has already been 3 months since I moved to Japan. It seems like just yesterday that I was nervously packing my bags for my biggest adventure yet. Life here in Japan continues to go well, and I am really enjoying my time here, but I am also excited to come home for Christmas in just under two months.

Anyways, let’s back track into September and talk about the awesome road trip I went on with some other ALT’s Kanazawa City in Ishikawa Prefecture. Thanks to a holiday on a Monday, we were able to take a long weekend to travel at the end of September, so we decided to adventure out of Nagano to a couple prefectures over.

Kanazawa City is about a four hour drive from Nagano, so we all decided to just drive together there instead of taking the train, which would have been more expensive and much longer. The views on the drive over were amazing. The mountains of Nagano are simply gorgeous and the rivers and streams that run through the valleys are such an amazing blue/green color. The only thing that sucked about the drive was all the tunnels we had to go through, especially the super bumpy one that made us feel like we were riding a horse.

We arrived in Kanazawa City in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel right away. It was a cool little capsule hotel, that felt a lot like the hostels I had stayed in across Europe, but with a cool Japanese twist. Each bed is its own little “capsule” where you are closed off from everyone else. It’s almost like a little pod, and everyone has a little tv, outlets, and a light. Mine was on the top, which was cool, but also a bit difficult to climb up to. The staff member was super nice, and the facilities were excellent. I would definitely stay there again, and would love to stay in another capsule hotel. Here are some pics:

After checking in to our hotel, we decided to do a little bit of exploring downtown. We drove into the main part of the city and parked, then decided to wander around. There is a really nice park that connects to the castle, so we first took a look at some of the gardens, then roamed up to the castle to take a look at the outside. It was a pretty nifty castle. Japanese castles are really elegant looking, while also being defensible, so it’s pretty cool to see. After the castle we continued walking in the park and visited a small shrine. Shrines are everywhere in Japan, so any city you go to is going to have one. I brought my book for my goshuincho, so I added another stamp from that shrine.

After walking around for a bit more, we met up with another JET Program ALT that one of my companions knew. We went to an izakaya, which is basically a casual pub where you can get appetizers and drinks. The food was pretty darn yummy, so we definitely enjoyed that. Afterwards we stopped by an arcade (which seem to be rather popular here), and I played a quick round of Dance Dance Revolution with the new ALT we met. I hadn’t played that game in forever and I totally sucked, but it was still fun. We then rounded out the night by grabbing some drinks from 7/11 (which are everywhere here by the way) and relaxing at our hotel.

The next morning was our full day of adventuring. We got some grub at a local German bakery (though it wasn’t really German at all), then proceeded to the gardens by the castle. We didn’t explore this part of the park the day before because you have to pay and it was already getting later in the day. But Sunday morning was the perfect day to explore the gardens and they were very beautiful. It was definitely worth paying the 500 yen for (about $5).

just look at that deliciousness

Once we finished exploring the gardens, we headed over to the train station to meet up with another JET. Kanazawa Station is known for the large Torii Gate in front (in the photos above). It was pretty cool to see. Once we collected the new addition to our group, we went to the large fish market. I did not particularly care for this part of the trip because 1. I hate fish 2. I hate the smell of fish 3. I hate looking at dead sea creatures. Gross. Luckily, our next stop after grabbing some food there (luckily I found some non-seafood options) was a local sweets festival, where I got a super delicious tiramisu pie. So yummy.

After the festival my friends and I parted ways briefly. I went to mass at a local parish right by the castle area that fortuitously had an English mass that weekend. The rest went off to an onsen. Once I was done with mass I met up with them again and we went to a nice geisha district, which was very cool. Check out the photos below.

After the geisha district we went in search of food and found a delicious curry restaurant. I seriously love the curry here. It’s different from Indian curry, but just as heavenly. Once we finished our food, we decided it was karaoke time. Karaoke is seriously so much fun here. They have special places just for karaoke where you get your own room to just have a blast. It was so much fun, and the perfect way to round out a great day in Kanazawa.

Our last day in Kanazawa was pretty relaxed. We didn’t do as much walking around that day, aside from walking to see some old samurai houses. After that, we were off to see the Sea of Japan. Unfortunately, a typhoon was passing by Japan at that time, so it was crazy windy. The water was super choppy and the wind blew sand right into our faces. I felt like I had been scoured by sand paper, but it was still cool to see the ocean. I was definitely shaking sand out of my clothes and hair for the rest of the day.

We rounded out our trip to Kanazawa with a trip to Costco. So many American food options were there; heaven on earth in other words. We stocked up on some essentials, such as cheese, bagels, and popcorn, and savored the delicious pizza at the food counter. It was nice to get a little taste of home before heading back to our Japanese home in Nagano.

Overall, it was a pretty nice trip. It was really relaxed and we had a lot of fun. Kanazawa is a pretty cool city that I would definitely visit again. Now it’s time for me to head off to bed here on the other side of the world, so I hope you, my dear few readers, enjoyed this post. Stay tuned for more! I’ll try to get caught up on my blog within the next week!

Horseback Archery, a Temple, and some Kitties

Time is definitely flying by quickly here in Japan! In two days, it will be two months since I have arrived in Japan. I’ve settled in quite well here and am enjoying life in Japan. A lot of that is due to the nice little adventures that I get to have. A couple weeks ago we had a long weekend due to a holiday on a Monday, so I decided to use part of that weekend to do a little bit of adventuring.

The first adventure was to go over to Ueda, another city in my prefecture, where I was invited by my friend Moni to come see a horseback archery demonstration at Ueda Castle. Archery is already cool enough, but add horses into that and it sounded like an awesome event to go see. I gathered a few other friends and we drove over to Ueda. The annoying thing about living up in the mountains is that even though the city is only 18 miles away from me it still took over an hour to get there because there are mountains you have to drive up and through. The speed limits on the roads here are also fairly low because the roads are more windy through the mountains. The drive wasn’t too bad though, and there were definitely some nice mountain views for my passengers on the way.

Once we got to Ueda we grabbed lunch, then headed over to the castle. It took us a bit of time to find the field that they were doing the demonstration on, so we ended up being a bit late. However, what we got to see was still pretty cool. The riders were wearing traditional garments and their horses were decked out as well. The bows they use are super long, probably over 6 feet at least. They had to gallop down a straight line and shoot at three targets to the side as they rode. It was pretty awesome.

After we watched the archery we packed into my car (luckily its a 5 passenger), and headed back to Matsumoto, where we met up with some other JETs at the mall. We meandered for a bit in the mall and happened to go past the pet shop there. One of the people I was with who could speak Japanese asked if she could hold one of the puppies, and I quickly tagged along. I got to hold this adorable mini schnauzer puppy and I about died it was so cute. We all had dinner at a really yummy Italian place that had unlimited bread if you bought that addition. I ate so much bread, but it was so worth it. Once we finished eating, we walked over to the castle, stopping by a cool ice cream shop that had just opened. The castle was open late until about 8:30 for moon viewing all weekend because of the recent full moon. I really like Matsumoto Castle, so it was even better to see it at night. It was a nice end to a good day.

The next day I headed over to Nagano City to meet up with another friend. Our first stop was to go to the really nice Buddhist temple there, called Zenkoji Temple, which I hadn’t been to yet. It was pretty awesome, and is located in a really cool district. We found charcoal ice cream, which was vanilla flavored and delicious. Check out these photos.

My friends showed me these cool books called goshuincho, where you can get stamps that show that you visited the temple or shrine. They are done in calligraphy and are really beautiful, and sounded like a perfect souvenir to start collecting here.

After visiting the temple we headed over to a cat cafe, which I had really been looking forward to. I am super pet deprived here, so I was ready to see and pet some kitties. This place did not disappoint, although the kitties weren’t super cuddly, which was a bit sad. But they had some absolutely gorgeous cats (like this one here), and I really enjoyed going there, though it was a bit on the expensive side.

We ended the day with a dinner with some other JETs, then I headed back to my village. It was a very nice day, and an overall great weekend of hanging out with some friends. Stay tuned for my next post on my trip outside of my prefecture the following weekend!

Just Keep Swimming

My next little adventure in Japan was going back to Nagano City the weekend following orientation for a welcome event for my block (the area of Nagano I’m in). The event was held at a nice indoor pool/water park called Nagano Sun Marine. I was luckily able to hitch a ride with some other ALTs to the city, which made it a lot easier than taking the train and then a bus to the pool.

The event itself was pretty fun. Our tickets gave us 3 hours to enjoy ourselves in the pool. Luckily, the pool did not force us tattooed people to cover up our tattoos. Japan is a pretty reserved culture, and tattoos are often associated with criminals. Many pools and hot springs will make you cover up your tattoos or won’t allow you in if you have them, so it was nice that I didn’t have to worry about covering mine up. I did bring a shirt with me to cover the tattoo on my back, but I was glad I didn’t need to use it. Maybe they just didn’t want to bother coming up to foreigners. Either way, it made life for several of us easier.

The pool was pretty nice. They had two slides you could go on, as well as a sort of lazy river. Aside from children, no one floated on tubes in this river though, so you were free to walk or float along in it. There was also a pretty nice wave pool, as well as a pool for people who wanted to swim laps. They had a nice hot tub that overlooked the whole park, and even had some saunas. After we swam, we also had the chance to enjoy the onsen, which are hot springs, though this one was artificial.

After we left the pool we all went to go get food together at a ramen restaurant. It was pretty good ramen, but nothing has compared yet to the ramen I had in Tokyo. That was freaking delicious. While we were eating, the restaurant was also playing Ponyo on a large screen. I’m not a fan. I tend to not like Studio Gibli films, and this one was too weird for me. Maybe one day I’ll try watching another one of their less weird films.

Once dinner was over we sought out some quick dessert, then headed back towards Matsumoto. All in all, it was a really fun day, and I got to hang out with some cool people. They have definitely helped to make my experience here an enjoyable one, and I’m excited for future events. Stay tuned for some more posts!

Orientation in Nagano City

All right folks, here’s yet another little adventure for y’all!

Due to Obon (a festival) and another national holiday, I was given off a whole week in August. I thought about going somewhere, but decided against spending the money or adventuring somewhere by myself, so I ended up spending the week mostly cooped up in my house watching Netflix, reading, and enjoying the heck out of my air conditioner. So nothing really exciting there. However, on August 16, I ventured to Nagano City for a mandatory orientation.

The orientation itself wasn’t too exciting, but it did give us some useful information. I got to meet the other ALTs who had arrived in Group B, so that was pretty cool. I also got to meet Nagano City’s mascot. That is one cute thing about Japan: everywhere pretty much has its own mascot, and they are usually pretty cute. Arukuma was no exception.

The new JETs with Arukuma!

After the orientation was where the real fun began. All the new JETs were invited to come meet all the other JETs and even some non-JETs (like direct hires) at an all-you-can-eat-and-drink restaurant. And when I say all you can drink, that includes a pretty good selection of alcohol. For about $30 you could feast and drink to your heart’s content, which I thought was pretty nifty. The food was pretty good, and they had a nice selection of sake and other alcohol. It was nice to meet some other pretty cool people, too.

Once we finished eating, a bunch of us decided to go do some karaoke. Finally, the thing I had really looked forward to doing in Japan. Karaoke here is famous, so I was excited to finally do it. For my readers who may not know, I love to sing, so karaoke is right down my alley. We were able to get one karaoke room for the lot of us, which was about 20 people. Though the room was loud and crowded, it was an awesome time. Me and one girl did a pretty darn good duet on “A Whole New World”. I definitely hope to do it again, because it was a hilarious and fun time, and really not too expensive.

I ended up spending the night in Nagano City with some other JETs at on of their apartments, which made my life so much easier. I would not have been able to go to the dinner otherwise, because the buses to my village stop running after 7:40. Thankfully, on the following Monday I bought a car from an ALT heading back to Australia, and it has made my life so much easier. It has given me the mobility to be able to do things with people until later in the day without worrying about making it back to the last bus to my village.

Overall, it was a pretty fun weekend. I made some new friends, which has made my experience here so much more enjoyable. I will hopefully be doing some more fun stuff with them in the future, so stay tuned for those posts!

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