Echizen coast, Ono and meeting my host family

Summer is on the cusp of autumn. Rice is being harvested and dried, big ripe apples have come into season and Halloween decorations are in all the stores.

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On a top of a hill over looking a city surrounded by mountains. This is a restoration of the original castle, which was destroyed during the Meiji era in the 18th century.

More importantly, the weather has finally changed. I now don’t have to have the air-con on in my apartment, but a fan still helps to keep the humidity at bay and I still average three showers a day! The heat feels worst on days when it is overcast and a tropical storm is on its way. The thunder storms here are like nothing I’ve seen before. Sometimes lightening can be seen far away, even though you can hear no thunder. Other times it can strike what seems like metres away from you and the thunder rumbles through the ground! But one guarantee is that it will quickly pass and an hour or so later the sky will be clear, like nothing ever happened!Image

Freedom has come in the form of a blue banged-up Suzuki Alto. It’s automatic, has four seats and chugs up the hills like an old pony. The rules of the road have not been a problem, mainly as they drive on the left. The main roads here are based on American suburbs, with wide lanes and big superstores, restaurants and pachinko parlors on either side. Traffic lights every 100 metres means traffic is slow and you can’t go far wrong. A result of this is that there’s a noticeable number of people who jump the lights!

One thing I still have not mastered is the art of bowing, especially bowing in the car. It is not uncommon for other drivers to give you a polite head bow if you let them out but one truck driver gave a full on bow to me. Not something I am going to try! After having my new buggy filled up with gasoline at a local service station, I get a full 90’ bow from the service workers. That’s pretty special! In the office I’ve also seen my vice-principle bowing whilst speaking to someone on the phone. I had to try hard to suppress my laughter!

My little car has already made trips through the mountains to my visiting school as well as to the coast. After a single-track road which carved down the mountains the road took us through a line of houses which backed on to the sea. I didn’t see anyone under sixty in that seaside village! It’s easy to have a skewed view of the population balance in Japan when you work in a school, but from that experience I can understand what they mean by Japan having an ageing population!

Another Suzuki adventure I’ve had, is to Ono, a famous castle city and onwards to an infamous camping spot in the mountains. Named by an ALT many moons ago, ‘The Watering Hole’, most probably based on the tradition of going there on the last weekend before school starts and enjoying the last taste of the summer with a trunk full of beers. So after a long and treacherous drive to the hidden spot, I was ready for a swim in the river to wash away the stickiness of the humid air. My friend and I tepidly got in the water with no idea what could be under the surface. It was turquoise and clear so we trusted old ALTs which assured us there was nothing to be worried of. Thankfully, they were right. I’m not sure if it’s a safe option to be in a river whilst there is a thunderstorm but it certainly was atmospheric! Other ALTs joined us and we had a great evening with a campfire and sharing food people had brought. Teari, the most ‘Amercian’-American I’ve ever met, and also the friendliest, brought a kilogram of tortilla chips and homemade salsa. A welcome change from rice and noodles!

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I was too busy swimming to get a good photo. Just imagine the 500 m gorge this is at the bottom of!

I’ve also met my host family for the first time. This was set up though a volunteer organisation promoting internationalisation in Fukui. Families sign up to meet someone different and perhaps to practice their English on us ‘hosties’, as we’re called here! I have been extremely lucky in being welcomed in to a Japanese family who live just a five minute drive from my apartment. ‘Ko’, a cheeky seven year old, doesn’t get that I can’t understand his Japanese but chats away at length to me!  ‘Azu’ is 10 years old and her older sister ‘Chi’ is 13 years. Their mother ‘Mayumi’ is an afterschool English teacher and their father ‘Manubu’ works in a local micro-chip factory.

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Yes I ate one of those disgusting looking sea snails! You can imagine it wasn’t the best!

Last Sunday I was invited there for a family BBQ and had no trouble finding their house. Ma-chan, as Mayumi said I could call her, loves the story of Anne of Green Gables. So much so, that her and her husband designed their house based on the house in the novel! It has a green roof, red brick and a veranda out of the front. It feels like stepping into an American home more than a Japanese one with rose petal wall paper and vintage ornaments. The one Japanese they have is filled with English materials as it’s where Mayumi has her classes. So it is home from home.

After only going there a couple of times Mayumi has made me feel like part of the family. I have already made Crispy Cakes with the girls and Mayumi has taught me how to make gyozas, or Japanese dumplings. I know look forward to seeing the family every Sunday evening and playing games with the children. I hope I can be a suitable big sister for the girls but I’m sure they’ll teach me more than I can teach them.

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Mayumi, Azu, Chi and Ko putting soy sauce on the sea snails (whilst they are alive) before they go on the BBQ

Settling in, school life and summer festivals

Once I found out the meaning of the kanji (Chinese characters) on my air con remote, my apartment has been was less like a sauna and a lot more liveable! I’ve had the TV on as much as possible trying to watch the Olympics and now know all the Japanese Olympiads! Whilst writing this I’m staying until 5am to watch the closing ceremony so I’m afraid I have 5 hours to rattle on things I’ve seen and done this week!

My new home: an apartment

Myself and Steven have our own apartments in a large three-storey apartment block. Other new JETs living here which we’ve been hanging out with are Niamh and Alice (both from Ireland) and Zoya (the only JET in Japan from Finland). Lots of other JETs live on their own so we are lucky we can just pop over to see each other. My school, Takefu Junior High School, is only a five minute walk from my apartment so I am really lucky in one sense, but on the other hand this means I have no excuse not to go in to school!

Once the temperature has dropped to a comfortable temperature, even if it’s still sticky, the other JETs and I have been exploring the area. We are surrounded by rice fields which give off a warm, sweet smell and remind me of South-east Asia. The sun goes down incredibly quickly here so there hasn’t been much time to enjoy the scenery. On the way back from our adventures around we often come across huge spiders, frogs and once this red headed centipede which can cause a very nasty bite! At night we can hear the chirping of what seems like hundreds of frogs having a pow-wow in the rice fields! Luckily I’m on the top floor so my apartment is free from unwanted visitors!

Takefu Junior High School

Being part of the school has been the most fascinating aspect of Japan so far, mainly because it is so different from British schools. For example the second time I went in to school I met the kyochosensei  (principle) and kyotosensei (vice-principle). It was here I realised that unlike in the UK when teachers escape for a month’s vacation, school doesn’t stop throughout the hot August vacation. Teachers are expected to continue preparing lessons and most importantly keep school clubs going. Each teacher is either coach or sub-coach for a school club, such as tennis, table tennis, volleyball, baseball, brass band or basketball. This means practising most days and even coming in on Saturdays to run sports practice! Junior high school students all have to participate in one club and it is very important to them. There are inter-prefecture school competitions and teams practice for months leading up to one. Whilst I was making a display board I watched in awe as the girls tennis squad did five laps around the school premises in army-like fashion shouting ‘Takefu! Hai, hai hai!’. And this was before the two hour practice in 30’C heat! Niamh, reported on how a girl had described coming second-place in a brass band contest as ‘motifying’!  These students train to win and anything less is a disappointment.

It is not just the school clubs which surprised me but how the students take responsibility and pride in their school. It is like their school is their second home and their teachers their second parents. On Thursday I got a taste of this when all the students and teachers came back for a half-day of school. The day started with ‘cleaning time’ where six students are assigned to clean a classroom. I introduced myself to the students in the English classroom and unsuccessfully tried to make conversation with them. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) told me that the school motto was ‘Cleaning Quietly’! So for the next ten minutes the students took a white cloth and on their hands and knees wiped the floors, corridors and stairs cleaned of every speck of dust! All without a single word of complaint! It was verging on being spooky! Next, in a very ordered fashion the students made their way to have an assembly in the gigantic gymnasium. I had to introduce myself in front of the 500 students which I admit was nerve wracking but I think I did ok until, it came to the bowing. After I finished I bowed as a way to make it clear I wanted to get off the stage. Then, all of the students were told to stand up and they bowed back to me! This was a very humbling experience but I’m pretty sure I bowed at all the wrong times and got a few sniggers from the kids. To finish the assembly the students and teachers all heartily sang the school song whilst looking towards a large Japanese flag. A very different assembly from the ones I use to go to!

Most of my time at school has been spent in the staff room. All the forty-so members of staff have a desk of their own in a large staff room and every morning starts with a ten minute morning meeting. In one of these meetings I introduced myself in Japanese and then spent the morning making a seating plan so I could remember the teacher’s names and subjects. Most of the teachers spoke enough English for me to understand them but in future I will try to practice my Japanese on them. One saying I am yet to master is ‘Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu’ which means ‘Sorry for leaving before you’ and it is said when leaving for the day. In reply other teachers say ‘you must be very tired’, even if the teachers have worked a 12 hour day! I’m sure I’ll write more on the Japanese work ethic.

Mikuni fireworks 

Since arriving in Fukui I’ve been on two beach trips. Never in my life have I seen so many people on a beach! Each person marks their spot with a matt and that is there square meter for the day. Yesterday we went up the coast to Mikuni to watch their annual fireworks festival. We got their early enough to mark the ‘gaijin territory’ but I declined going in the murky looking water as people complained of a biting fish, jelly fish stings and then we saw a squid in the water! The day was full of surprises: I spotted a pod of dolphins, we got invited in to a Japanese woman’s house for watermelon and we got to see the Fukui-famous Tojimbo cliffs as well. The best part of the day was seeing lots of young couples dressed up in traditional Japanese dress buying festival food together. Girls with flowers in their hair, wearing yukata (summer kimonos) and geta (wooden flip flops). There was such a fantastic atmosphere as we watched the fireworks on the beach full of Japanese fireworks. Probably nothing on being at the Olympics but it was a good substitute!