Sweet Trip

Sorry, it’s been a while! December was a bit of a whirlwind at work with a conference at a nearby school, demonstration lessons, and (of course) Christmas-themed lessons; I ended up leaving Kyushu on Christmas Day to visit my family back in Texas. It was a nice, if not short, trip, and it was good to see my family again. But now, I’m back and more determined than ever to make the best of this experience. Last weekend, I made a trip to Hikari-no-mori, a nearby town, to do some shopping and finally watch the movie Baymax (Big Hero 6); not exactly a particularly Japanese-y outing, but the movie was dubbed over with Japanese voice actors. And because my birthday was the following Monday, I bought myself some bath bombs from LUSH (yes, they have LUSH here- I was so excited about this!), a cool backpack, and a cute pencil case (pouch?). Check out my swag below!

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Anywho, for this weekend’s excursion, I decided I try to visit a shrine and the popular department store Desaki in nearby Kikuyo. Those who know me, know that I absolutely hate driving, so I find it a little ironic that I ended up in a rural placement where I have to commute (by car) for an hour through winding mountain roads on the opposite side of the road than I was previously accustomed. Nonetheless, today I opted to drive instead of taking the train since it was such a short distance.

The ‘shrine’ wasn’t really what I expected. To be fair, I didn’t really know what to expect since my knowledge of shrines is very limited; to prepare, I read before a short article on temple/shrine etiquette before heading out to try to find my first shrine. Long story short, I didn’t actually find it…I found this building instead.

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I’m still not really sure what this is, but I think next time I decide to go looking for a shrine here in Japan, I’m going to try to go with someone who actually knows what to look for. Oh well, you live and learn, right?

Anyways, Desaki did not disappoint. I’ve been to this store once before, with a lovely English woman who I met at a conference I went to in Aso-Nishi, but coming here alone was slightly different experience. Not better or worse, just different. What I did enjoy was getting to linger in the clothing section; for some reason, I love fabric with rich textures- wool, cotton, velvet, corduroy, flannel- you name it, I adore it. Ever since I was a kid, I have always loved running my hand through clothing racks in department stores, and the clothing section of Desaki was like my personal trip back to childhood. Plus, the clothes were all so pretty and of amazing quality.

Next, I headed to the craft department, and, let me tell you, Desaki is a scrapbooker’s paradise. Endless arrays of decorative masking tapes, rubber stamps, and beautiful paper crafts lined the aisles; I wanted everything! Although if I’m being honest, I wanted everything from every section- clothing, crafts, kitchenware! It was all so gorgeous and, again, very high quality, but I decided to show some restraint, and came of there with only a cute, small tea cup and this super sweet umbrella.

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All in all, this weekend was truly a success. But maybe next weekend, I’ll do something that won’t make me want to empty my wallet. Lucky for me, Aso has some great hiking trails, so I will be sure to check those out, so long as the ash isn’t too troublesome. Oh yeah, did I mention that my town is located near the base of an active volcano that has been spewing smoke and ash for the better part of two months now? I hadn’t? Well, it is. It’s pretty cool actually, as long as you don’t get too close.

Well, jaa ne! (That roughly means, “see you later!”)

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Onigiri & Ugly Sweaters

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These are two things that have nothing in common. Onigiri is a Japanese staple food: a rice ball that is often filled with a variety of foods, sometimes fish, vegetables, and/or other meats; it can be wrapped in seaweed or not. The rice may be plain or mixed with fish, veggies and/or-you guessed it!- other meats. It’s most often eaten at lunch, or (depending on the filling) at breakfast as well, although that’s less common. Ugly sweaters are an American Christmas staple item. You can find them in thrift stores, second-hand shops, and now even major department stores are getting in on this ironically cool trend. Some people (like various members of my family) will even take a reasonably nice sweater and ‘ugly it up’ by adding faux greenery, gaudy Christmas lights, tree ornaments, and those cute mini Christmas present things.

The other day, I had the opportunity to try my hand at making onigiri at one of my schools; it’s a bit trickier than you’d think, or maybe I’m just inept. The smaller of my junior high schools Takamori *East*, had a special school lunch last Wednesday; all the teachers, students, and even moms from the community got together to cook a big meal at the school. One of the dishes was- you guessed it- not onigiri; actually, it was inari sushi, a fried tofu pouch filled with rice, the leftover rice was used to make onigiri! Anyways at school, in front of the moms and two of my third year students, my onigiri skills were pitiful; when I couldn’t get the hang of perfectly cupping the rice mound in my palm to get a triangular shape, my students suggested I tried forming them into simple balls- that was also not working because my hands were drying out and the rice is very sticky! The trick is moisten your hands with water before every dip into the rice, and I would sometimes forget to do that, so I kept getting clusters of rice stuck to my hands and fingers.

After several failed attempts, it was clear that I was not going to get the hang of onigiri right then in that moment; in fact, I had barely been able to make two severely misshapen blobs before the rest of the women and girls had expertly packed every last grain of rice into neat little triangle shaped mounds. But, all in all, it was such a fun day. I chatted with my students and the other teachers in broken, slightly awkward Japanese (on my part), and simple, sometimes broken English (on their part). We all worked together like a big family, and I felt lucky to be a part of it.

Later that day, I stayed up late to perfect my onigiri skills, and the products of that labor were pictured above.

Earlier this week, in my other, much larger junior high school, I got to share with the students my Mexican-American heritage by showing them how I celebrated Christmas with my family. One tradition that my family and I have really come to enjoy is our annual “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party”. The students got a kick out of the pictures I showed them of my family’s party sweaters from the past couple years, and got a chance to make their own. I put them in groups of four and gave a sweater template printout to each group. As I wandered around the classroom to inspect their progress, I watched as my second year students collectively worked on their sweaters by passing the sheet around so that everyone in the group got to draw or color something. That was real teamwork, and I couldn’t help but think that that was definitely not how group projects went when I was in school back in the States. With my first years (ickle firsties!- you get bonus points if you get the reference), however, it was a different story! A few groups did the same kind of division of labor, but a few others had one student (usually a girl), who ended up doing most if not all the work, and she also turned out to be the better artist. It was hard to tell just how this happened or what dynamics may have been at play, so, as a former psychology major, I couldn’t help wonder about it for the rest of the day. But, rather than bore you with my theories as to what was going on, I’m just going to show you pictures of some of their work.

In my second year class, it was clear that the sweaters weren’t supposed to be cute or fashionable, so there were some real funny looking ones, and I’ve pictured my favourite. I liked it because the students had the creative idea to draw Santa as a blobfish, which (according to this article) was once voted ugliest animal.

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In my first year class, the students and teacher all thought the sweaters were actually kind of cool-looking (I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder), so they went the more fashionable route and created some really cute and classy sweaters.

This first one was done by a group that shared the workload equally the way that my second year students did.

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This sweater was mostly done by one particularly talented girl out of a group of four students. It’s definitely impressive, and so kawaii!

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It’s exactly these kinds of cultural exchanges and experiences that I hoped to have when I decided to come out here. So that’s all that I have to share for now. I hope you enjoyed the stories and pictures.

Working at 4 different schools and teaching 2 evening English conversation classes means I usually have a really hectic week, and when I come home after work on Fridays, I am beyond pooped, so (naturally) I decided to stay up until 1 am making onigiri and doodling a comic. Also, how cute are those food shaped erasers? I took a close up of the cupcake! #teamnosleep #onigiri #oishii #doodles #kawaii

From Texas to Takamori

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Just a short and sweet update on what’s been going on in my life here in Japan. This weekend, I went to not one, but two local festivals, and while both were rather humble affairs, they were so fun and enjoyable. On Saturday, my two smaller schools had their annual bunkasai, or “Cultural Festival”, and I got to see my junior high and elementary school students perform skits, dances, and sing songs. On Sunday, Takamori (the town I teach in), had it’s harvest foods festival (pictured above), and I got to sample some delicious local foods- I even ran into some of my students from my other schools. I loved seeing the community come out and celebrate together, and while I felt a little awkward at first, it was so nice to be out in the festive atmosphere. Now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on my weekend a bit, I’m comforted by the reminder that no matter where we live, what country or what culture, people really are quite similar.

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We might not all speak the same language, eat the same foods, or have the same mannerisms and customs, but we all find joy and purpose in being together. I saw families- parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings, grandparents and aunts and uncles- cluster together and share food and laughter, and it occurred to me that I’ve watched this scene countless times before. I’ve lived in a handful places around the US (Texas, Kentucky, Vermont, Colorado), and whether it’s a small town or a big city, people always find ways reach out to one another and connect. We thrive on community, so we invent ways and reasons to get out of our homes and get together; we go to farmers’ markets, seasonal fests, music and cultural festivals, state fairs, Washington’s Birthday Celebration (a near-month-long event held every February in my hometown), Wilmore Old-Fashioned Christmas (held annually on the first Saturday in December), and so many others. We go with family and friends to make memories and eat yummy foods; we buy crafts, play carnival games, take pictures, watch performances, and we celebrate. It’s not an “American” thing or “Japanese” thing, it’s a “people” thing. We all want opportunities to get together and just have fun.

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I’ve been to more than my fair share of events like this, but this was the first time I found myself at such an event completely on my own. In the past, I have attended these kinds of things with family members and friends, or co-workers and what-not, and this was the first time I was alone, but the funny thing is, I didn’t really feel alone. I felt really lucky. Lucky because I never thought I could end up doing the things I’ve done, and travelling to the places I’ve been. I’m just a girl from a dusty, border town in south Texas, and until only just recently, I never thought any of this could be possible. I spent a good few weeks feeling sad, lonely, and incredibly homesick, but this weekend was a good reminder of why I wanted to come out here in the first place: to explore and experience, and the more I do that, I more I realize that it’s easy to find warmth and community, once go looking for it.