Living in the present

Last week I had a “Wow! I’m in Japan” moments. It was on the coach ride home from a school trip in Nagoya and I’d just woken up and looked at the stunning scenery outside. In that millisecond I’d remembered I was in Japan, something I used to do in the first few months of moving here. The journey back from Nagoya was reminiscence of when I first saw the green mountains, sea views and rice fields of Fukui nearly two years ago. Now, I’m seeing the world around me in a different light, with the eyes of someone who is leaving and wants to take it all in before I no longer can.

Heron in rice field, Fukui

Traditional Japanese house, Fukui

Sunset over ricefields, Fukui

I will be leaving Japan next month and feel like I’m chugging closer and closer to the top of an emotional roller coaster. I’m sure it will breach when I get on a train to leave Echizen for the last time. At that time, I’ll allow the tears to flow but in the meantime I have a lot to do; forms to fill out, ceramics to send home, clothes to throw out, a car, bike and snowboard to sell and sayonara speeches to give.

View over Echizen

I’ve left places I’ve loved before, and it’s not easy as a place is the setting for so many memories. After four years in Cambridge, I had to leave my antiquated house, my friends and all that went along with them – playing tennis in the afternoons, formal dinners and bike rides along the river. I remember it was a sad journey home, but that is just a reflection of how good a time I had there. If the same theory goes for Japan, I could be crying the whole 12 hours flight back, but hope I won’t be!

The physical packing up and turning the key in the door of my flat will be a poignant moment. The moment that connects the present tense ‘I live here’ to the past tense ‘I lived there.’ I’ve decided to delay packing up my stuff until the last couple of weeks, so I can enjoy the last month with looking at my flat’s bare walls and empty shelves and feeling like a stranger in my own home.

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Yet, as my friend whose read “The Power of Now” has told me, I have to live in the present. To enjoy every day and not reminisce about the past or worry about the future. It’s not easy to do, but knowing I’ve made the most of my time here; travelling far and wide, making close friends and hopefully inspiring a few students along the way.

With only some vague ideas of what I’m going to do when I get home, I will have time to reflect on my Japanese experience by continuing to write this blog, talking to anyone who’s interested and sorting through the thousands of photos I’ve taken (including way too many of rice fields and flowers).

Iris in Fukui

Wisteria in Murasaki Shikibu Park, Echizen, Fukui

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I don’t like making a big deal out of farewells, but I know it’s important to do them well. Of course I’ll be able to keep up with my friends on-line, but it isn’t the same as drinking together on Friday nights and laughing until our sides hurt. What will keep us together are the good, the bad and the embarrassing memories made in here, like the time I misjudged where I should sit in this photo!

Friends

Before I leave Fukui, I want to spend as much time as I can with my friends here. Yet at the same time I’m mentally adjusting to stepping back into my old life, with a new pair of shoes. I’m excited to make up for missed time with my friends and family again but apprehensive about experiencing what they call ‘reverse culture shock’, but is probably less of a ‘shock’ and more of a gradual readjustment to a different lifestyle. It’s going to be a big change, but one I’m looking forward to embracing the ups-and-downs of.

One friend who went through this process last year said, “It all becomes like a dream.” Well if it does, it will be one of the best dreams I’ve ever had.

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Top 10 Places to Visit in Fukui

“Fukui? Eeehh! Sore wa doko?” This is the reaction I often get from Japanese people who I meet on my travels outside of Fukui.

The prefecture is almost unheard of in Japan, let alone in the world. Yet Fukui has some fantastic historic, cultural and beautiful places to visit. Here’s my top 10!

#10 Ichijodani Asakura Clan Ruins (between Echizen and Ono) 

I’m no Japanese-history buff, but at this reconstructed settlement I can really feel the history of the area and imagine what the bustling town of 10,000 people would’ve been like 500 years ago. It’s also in a gorgeous valley that would be excellent for cycling.

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One of the reconstructed streets from the samurai town that stood here 500 years ago before it was burnt down by Oda Nabunaga.

#9 Maruoka Castle 

Unlike many castles in Japan that have been reconstructed, Maruoka Castle, also known as ‘Kasumiga-jo’ (Mist Castle), has not been changed since it was built in 1576 and is Japan’s oldest castle tower. You can admire it from the outside or climb the steep stairs up to the top to get panoramic views over Maruoka town.

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#8 Ikeda waterfall and rope bridge

Ikeda offers serene vistas of rice-terraced valleys, cascading waterfalls and places to try or make delicious soba noodles. Read my post on it here.

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This 40 meter long bridge is woven with vines and is suspended 12 meters above Asuwa river and makes for a scary crossing!

#7 Echizen Washi Paper Village, Echizen 

You can also watch masters at work as they make papyrus paper and buy beautiful souvenirs made of washi (traditional Japanese paper). The thatched Okamoto Otaki shrine, one of Echizen’s gems, is a short walk away hidden on the outskirts of a forest and shouldn’t be missed.

Making a mini fan at Echizen Paper Village

A mini fan is one of the many things you can make at the Paper Village.

#6 Tojimbo Cliffs

Tojimbo cliffs are an undeniably strange tourist attraction. The fact that people have committed suicide here in the past, and there is still a nightly suicide watch, has only increased the popularity of these rectangular outcropping rocks. Japanese people don’t like to take photos here in case ghosts of the deceased appear. Despite that it is one of Fukui’s most popular tourist destinations, it’s even a popular place to take a date!

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Tanning at Tojimbo. No ghosts in sight.

#5 The mountains, rivers and lakes east of Ono 

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“The Watering Hole”, a favourite ALT camping and swimming spot near Ono.

Lake Kuzuryu is also a beautiful place to visit in autumn when the leaves are turning red.

#4 Yokokan Garden, Fukui City

A peaceful Edo Period garden in the centre of Fukui City. Come here to relax and remember you are in Japan.

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Take a book and read in the tatami-floored rooms overlooking the pond.

#3 Ski Jam, Katsuyama

Snowboarding, or skiing, are popular hobby for ALTs in Japan. It’s a great way to enjoy winter and meet up with friends on the weekend. Even if you haven’t done it before, after a couple of tries you’ll be standing! Even if you’re on your backside and can still enjoy the stunning views!

Ski Jam has great beginner and intermediate courses

Ski Jam has great beginner and intermediate courses for snowboarders and skiers.  

#2 Nishiyama Park, Sabae

Cherry blossoms in spring, sprinklers to jump through in summer, red leaves in autumn and snow-protected trees in winter. All year round this park has something to offer.

Swathes of azaleas in May

Swathes of azaleas in May.

#1  Eiheji Temple 

This is not your usual tourist destination. You have to change your shoes to enter, walk around quietly and the only souvenirs you can buy are meditation cushions and prayer beads! It lives up to its name, “The Temple of Eternal Peace”, even when there are tourists wandering around.

Founded by Zen Master Dogen Zenji in 1244, it is the largest training centre for Zen monks in Japan today. With grey-robbed monks going about their daily lives, you can witness the harsh mental and physical training regime these men go through to gain monkhood. It’s a privilege to be able to see monks continuing century-old traditions, and one you should definitely visit Fukui to see.

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Eiheiji Temple in the snow.

More resources 

More resources

Here is a beautiful video made by Fukui Shimbun about Fukui (only in Japanese). 福井県の魅力を高橋愛さんが紹介する観光プロモーションビデオの一場面

6915889_75x75Former JET Aaron Nathanson made some stunning videos while living in Fukui, check out Yukiguni: Snow Country , Sonotoki: At That Time, Sakura: Cherry Blossom in Fukui.

 

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For Fukui’s Sake is an entertaining read about Sam Baldwin’s time living as a JET in Ono.

 

Being a tourist in my own town

After three days of sitting under my kotatsu (heated table), eating Christmas chocolate and watching films it was high time I got some exercise. I also wanted to explore Echizen on foot, something I hadn’t done since I arrived in August when the heat was unbearable. Now snow has fallen in abundance and has settled on rice paddies, parks and roofs. I put on my wellies and a coat, grabbed my camera and set off for an afternoon of exploration.

Twenty minutes later I was sat in a Kyudo dojo (Japanese archery training hall) watching a sixty-something year old man practise this ancient samurai tradition. I’d seen this man practising before but never dared to stop, in case my presence put him off. Yet this time I watched, trying to keep perfectly still, as the archer drew his bow high, held the position for an eternity and then let go. ”Thwack!” the arrow had hit the target. I was about to walk away when the man caught my eye and gestured me towards him. I diligently came, hoping he spoke some English. He didn’t.

Once seated and with my camera at the ready, I watched him commence the ritualised pattern of movement that involves absolute concentration of mind and body. It looked more like an art than a sport and it was obvious he was a master of it. Once he’d finished the routine that accompanies the shooting of the arrows, I tried to make conversation. Truly, it was embarrassing for me to ask him questions in my broken Japanese. However I did understand that he was indeed a sensei of the sport and he had twenty students from chu-gakko age (12-15) to adults. He let me hold the two metre long bamboo bows, with the beautiful leather handle and the maker’s seal at the bottom. I also admired the feathered arrows, two of which were wooden, one of which was aluminium. He told me much more about himself and the martial art but it was lost on my poor Japanese skills. I said domo arigatou gozaimashita (polite thank you) and slid the wooden door of the dojo shut. At that moment I vowed to take up Japanese study fervently so I can communicate more fluently with people like this.

I wandered through the back streets of Echizen and entered temple gates to nosy around. On New Year’s day, I had had the wonderful experience of going to a temple, clapping my hands twice, ringing the bell and praying for the new year. I had also bought three charms, without knowing what type of good luck they’d bring, and was given a paper bow and arrow from the generous temple priest. I later found that the bow and arrow should be hung up inside a house to keep away bad omens. The kindness of the temple priest made me think that they can’t mind too much having foreigners look around (not that Echizen has many foreigners), so I freely explored some more of the temples. In these weather conditions, they are slightly ominous places to be, not because of bad spirits but because large boulders of snow can easily slip off the sloping temple roofs. After I nearly got hit by an avalanche of snow and decided it was time to move on. Maybe I had angered the spirits!

My next stop was Godou Book Cafe, a hidden away establishment that I’d been recommended by a friend. I was greeted with Irashaimase” by the cool looking man behind the bar, then a male customer said, ”Meccha kawai” and then in English, ”So pretty”. With only men drinking beer and smoking in the ‘cafe’, I wondered what type of place I’d come to; it certainly wasn’t like the other cute, women-run cafes I’d been to before. ”Thank you” I replied to the English-speaker, ”Nice to meet you”. Waiting for my coffee to arrive I took in the leather seats, country music and old pictures on the wall and decided it felt more like an English pub than a book cafe! When the coffee finally arrived the barista/barman spoke to me in very quick Japanese and I had absolutely no clue what he was saying, but I did the easiest thing I could in that situation, nod my head and smile with agreement. The man who spoke English asked me if I understood and when I replied ”Wakanai” (I don’t understand) everyone laughed! This eased us in to conversation and I soon found out that the barman had once been a student at my school. We joked about his old soccer coach who, eleven years later, was still a science teacher. I never did find out what the barman had said to me, but I left knowing I’d found a place to feel at home in.

After walking back through the dimly-lit and snowy streets, I ate my fill of hot noodles in my local Hachi-ban Ramen restaurant. Hachi-ban Ramen is the healthy Japanese equivalent of McDonald’s. I am not a huge ramen fan but I like to watch the chefs in the kitchen toss noodles in giant vats, fry oil so there is a metre high flame and generally work together as a ramen machine to get orders to customers in less than five minutes. There are also friendly women who greet you, show you to your seat and take your order. They too rush about serving customers but never look flustered. Each worker has their own job whether it’d be filling the water, frying the gyoza (dumplings) or taking the money and the whole system works efficiently. Having worked in food establishments before, I know that there stress-levels fly high behind the closed doors of kitchens. Here however, the men looked more uncomfortable when there was a lull in customers and had nothing to do!

I walked home with a tummy full of noodles and happy to have met some of Echizen’s townfolk. I know that I could never be classed as a ‘local’ here but I’ll will try my best to make friends with them. So, where’s my Japanese study book?

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