Monthly Archives: August 2011

Mailbag Requests: Differences

::pulls out reading glasses and digs into the mailbag::

Alright, first up is from Sus: “How Otobe differs from your other homes in Japan.”

First, a quick review of where I’ve been in Japan. In 2004, I visited Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto with my mother. In 2005, I stayed with a host family in Nishiizu, Shizuoka for a few weeks. In 2006, I returned there for a week, on a trip that also included Tokyo and Kyoto. Finally, in 2008 I studied abroad in Nagoya for four months, also visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama, and Shirakawa-go. Of all of these, I consider myself to have actually “lived” in Nishiizu and Nagoya.

Otobe is obviously different from Nagoya. Nagoya is Japan’s third largest metropolitan center, with an international airport, department stores, universities, and a subway system (as well as a major port). Otobe’s claim to transportation fame is a major federally-maintained road running through it and most shopping beyond daily needs is down in towns further south or east. Nagoya might as well be Saint Paul, MN with Japanese people for all the differences. Right now, the weather is pretty similar – warm and humid and almost September, but I suspect our winter will not be as mild as Nagoya’s.

The differences between Nishiizu and Otobe were slower to come to light. First, I’d like to teach you a new word – “inaka”. It’s means rural, or countryside, but it also has a distinct flavor of ‘the sticks’.

When you apply to the JET programme, there’s a place on the form where you can indicate any placement requests you may have, whether it’s urban, suburban, or rural, or if you even have a specific prefecture or city you’d like to be sent to. There’s a bit of a myth that JET won’t place you in a city – false! You’re almost definitely not going to get Tokyo or one of the other largest cities, but Sapporo, Kyoto, Fukuoka City are all possibilities.

There’s also a lot of chat about whether JET cares about any specific requests you may make, or whether you should make them at all. Personally, I think that it never hurts to ask, especially if you add that you would really be happy anywhere (if you wouldn’t be, either don’t apply or lie). My theory as to whether they listen? I think they do as long as 1) it’s convenient for them, 2) they actually have spots open where you want to go, 3) they think you’d be okay there, and 4) the contracting organization wants you. That last one may sound weird, but if the CO is in a large city and the only housing available is a one-room apartment in the teachers’ dorm, they may not want the JET who is bringing their family along.

Personally, I was one of the lucky ones: Hokkaido – anywhere was my first choice and I got it. However, I’ve talked to other Hokkaido JETs who were bewildered about their placement. They’d requested Kyushu (the southernmost of the Japanese home islands) or some other warm location, only to end up in the land of snow, ice, and skiing.

Anyway, enough JET speculation! Basically, what I’m getting at is that placements are discussed endlessly and locations are usually broken down into four categories: Urban, whether a location is suburban enough (depending on which way, rural or urban, the JET was leaning), rural, and those rare ‘Yes, you are the only foreigner on the island and the boat only runs to the mainland 3 times a week’ postings. Since Otobe fell into squarely into the rural category, I spent most of orientation and the first few weeks being reminded that I was in the inaka. It’s the middle of nowhere! People speak in strange dialects! Vegetables mysteriously appear at your door! Public transportation is a myth!

I was so indoctrinated that it took me until a few days ago to realize that, actually, Otobe wasn’t that inaka, especially once I compared it to Nishiizu. Then it became downright cosmopolitan! Otobe has three convenience stores and two traffic lights! More than one elementary school! Hakodate is only an hour and a half away by car, whereas in Nishiizu, you’d have to drive twice as long to get somewhere half Hakodate’s size.

Helps keep things in perspective.

More General Differences

No lie, there’s a lot to be stressed about when you’ve moved to a foreign country. However, one of the biggest stress relievers has been living on my own. There’s no Japanese host family to worry about offending or putting out. Don’t get me wrong, I think home-stays are wonderful, but transitioning from a college student who takes care of most of her own daily needs to living as a family with people you didn’t know until last month can be tough.

Now I can decide to leave the breakfast dishes until after work, or move all the furniture around, and do the laundry when I want, without worrying about destroying the family washing machine. Having a job also relieves a lot of pressure – if I broke my washing machine, it would suck, but I’d be able to replace it.

Though I’d rather spend the money on books.

(this is from a trip to Esashi – to think that before driving up, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the bookstore)



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Cake in a Cup

I was scouting Esashi this afternoon, partly to see if there was parking at the train station (there is, though not much) for the purpose of perhaps going to Hakodate next weekend, and partly to see if there was a bookstore (there is, though it’s pretty basic, with a much more awesome than expected stationery section), when I decided to stop by Yellow Glove on the way home. Yellow Glove is sort of the local Fleet Farm equivalent, minus the hunting supplies. A sort of Target with a heavier emphasis on hardware and home furnishings, but complete with its own small grocery selection (mostly snacks). I love it dearly for its 99JPY wall of candy and bookcases for less than 1000JPY.

I was cruising the snack section, as one does, right before dinner, when something caught my eye: At first I thought it was chocolate pudding, which is scarce in Japan. Having endured insipid coffee and milk-flavored flan-like puddings for the past month, I veered toward it, only to discover that it was in fact, cake in a cup. Microwaveable cake in a cup.

Say it with me: Yummy?

I’d seen various permutations of this concept lurking around the internet, but never a commercial version, so I snatched it up.

Tonight, after dinner (pizza, with a few more sea creatures than originally advertised), I tried it out. Only an egg was required, and after an aborted attempt to use chopsticks to mix it as the directions suggested, I swirled the whole thing together with a fork and popped it into the microwave for two minutes.

After it was done, I left it for a moment, because 1) I was in the middle of clipping my fingernails and 2) the kitchen smelled a bit like I had done something mean to an egg.

It kind of looked like I had done something mean to an egg as well, but I persevered.

Final verdict? Not bad. It was light and fluffy and chocolate-flavored, and not too sweet. As an aside, Japanese people are convinced that American candy is much, much too sweet, especially compared to their candy. I would agree that there is almost definitely more processed sugar involved, but would argue that Japanese mochi and wagashi (especially with red bean filling) can also easily veer into sickeningly sweet territory, with the added disadvantage of being impossible to chew and swallow. To each their own cavity-causing confectionery, I suppose.

I’ll probably buy it again, considering that it cost less than 100JPY.


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Around Otobe and Home Again

Otobe is fairly small – 4400 people in a rural farming/fishing community (emphasis on the fishing). It was designated as a village in 1902 and a town in 1965, swallowing up several other small villages and winning the name war in the process. The main town is situated around the delta of the Himekawa (Princess River), with outlying pockets of homes and shops to the east and north (mostly north). Esashi is the nearest town to the south, with Yakumo being in the north. Yakumo proper is actually situated on the opposite side of the peninsula, but its jurisdiction extends from the Pacific to the Japan Sea. Kind of cool.

It only took about a month for people to accept me as part of the landscape – being introduced to over a hundred elementary school students (and, by extension, a couple hundred relatives) will have that effect. It was actually stranger to be shopping in Esashi last night, with every other person double-taking. I certainly didn’t look anything like their ALT.

(Otobe’s in yellow, Yakumo is the large chunk to the north, and Esashi is the bit to the south that looks like a mouth and chin)

Otobe doesn’t have everything, but like many rural communities, most things are easily within reach (if you have a car and some time). If you can’t find it in Otobe, you can find it in Esashi or somewhere between the two. If you get truly desperate, Hakodate, the nearest large city with 280,000 people, is an hour and a half’s drive away. Sapporo, the prefectural capital of Hokkaido, is a good 3-4 hour drive and has just about anything you can think of. Within Esashi and Otobe, however, the only things I haven’t found that I would like to are a cat cafe, a place where I can get good desserts (Japan has places that make cream puffs that people would kill for), and a good source of yarn. I suspect that the first and the last will have to be found in Hakodate, or Sapporo, or perhaps even over the internet, in the case of the yarn.

When I discovered that I would be posted to Hokkaido, I immediately had my fingers crossed for one thing – a house. When I was accepted into the JET program, I started preparing myself for the realities of the situation: Japan is known for small living spaces and if I were sent anywhere remotely urban, I could quickly find myself living out of a six-tatami mat room (352 cm x 264 cm) with a hotplate and a communal bathroom if I were unlucky. However, Hokkaido is Japan’s second largest island, and it’s largest prefecture, but has the lowest population density of any prefecture in Japan. I knew I had a good chance of getting a large apartment at least and maybe a house.

They split the difference and I ended up with a two-bedroom duplex. I like it, though it’s definitely a work in progress. My predecessor, in the grand tradition of predecessors everywhere, left behind a variety of items: Stuff she had been left by her predecessor that I might have use for, stuff she didn’t need that I might be able to use, and stuff I still haven’t figured out. Plus everything the house came with, like furniture, dishes, bedding, and a bicycle. Probably my biggest headaches are the TV taking up a huge chunk of one of my two closets and the meat left by my predecessor in the freezer, not realizing that the electricity would be shut off after she left, which still lends my kitchen an intriguing, lingering odor.

I’ve been tackling it room by room, moving furniture, buying more furniture, and hanging up pictures. I’ve got the kitchen, entryway, and bedroom to my liking, while the living/dining room still await some furniture in other parts of the house so that the dining table chairs can be released from acting as desk chairs, mirror holders, and towel racks. My office is in dire need of a bookshelf, but the floor is currently serving as an admirable surface in its stead.

The first in the series of Before and After: House Edition.

Here’s the entryway, the day I moved in. I’m standing in the genkan, a tiled area one step down from the wood floor you can see. It’s where I keep my everyday shoes and the trash cans. Behind me are the sliding doors, a separate area for my bike and the mop, and finally the glass sliding doors to my front stoop. Not visible in the picture, directly to the left of the coat rack is the bug killing ensemble, complete with spider spray and a collection of ant traps. Through the door you can see the living/dining room. If you went through that door and then immediately pulled a 180, you would see my toilet (if the toilet door was open anyway). There’s a bit of a step up into the toilet, the scene of many early morning stumblings.


I added a shoe cabinet that I bought over the internet, along with a selection of my maneki neko (beckoning cat) figurines, plus two wall hangings that I had obtained in Japan over the years, one with rabbits and the moon (the Japanese see a rabbit, rather than a Man in the Moon), and one with maneki neko as the Seven Lucky Gods. In this picture you can see the tiled area of the genkan, with my two most worn pairs of shoes and my snowboots (which don’t fit in the shoe cabinet). By the way, if your door is unlocked, anybody can come into the genkan and stand on the bit below the wood floor, calling for you. Most people haven’t ventured beyond where I keep the bike, until they see me and then they march right in. I did come out of the kitchen once to find a local politician standing at the step and peering into the living room however. Incentive to keep your house clean, right?

My shoes in the cabinet. Eventually there will be some slippers as well, to offer guests. Right now, nobody is visiting socially, so there’s no point. I almost croaked after putting the shoe cabinet together (by dint of great effort) and discovering that my shoes barely fit. Oi. On top you can see my cat collection, some traditional Japanese beckoning cats, some just figurines from friends. There’s a glass cat from Portugal from Tasha up there, and the blue one’s from Laura.

My favorite’s the brown, round one. I got it in Takayama and it reminds me of Boomer, my kitty. I rarely buy the ‘standard’ maneki neko anymore (calico cat with red collar), and keep an eye out for the more eccentric ones. These are only a small chunk of my actual 30+ collection.


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Welcome to Otobe!

Super fancy manhole cover in town – the building is Akarenga (literally ‘red brick’), a historical government building in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital. Coincidentally, I took this picture two days before visiting Sapporo for regional orientation…part of which took place in Akarenga.

I left for Japan a month ago today, which means that this post is rather long overdue. My biggest difficulty has been taking interesting pictures that I can form a coherent narrative from. As a student in Japan it was easy to 1) carry my camera everywhere to snap candids and 2) create encapsulated posts focusing on small areas (it’s not easy, but possible, to summarize a four-month experience in a post or two). Now that I’m the main event at the most interesting places I go, it’s not like I can pause in the middle of the speech I’m giving and take a few pictures of the elementary school gymnasium or my workplace.

Though I will certainly try because it would be no fun to merely try and describe from memory twenty years from now the fact that every public building in Otobe seems to have a large mounted bear chilling in the front lobby. They’re certainly a good reminder to not go tromping into the woods alone (though I eventually had to explain that I was more likely to take up yodeling).

I’ve spent the last 3.5 weeks in Otobe, mostly at my desk in the Board of Education office or beating my house into a home. Let me explain about the office first:

Japanese offices (especially school offices/teachers’ rooms) are modeled on a common pattern – whoever is in charge has their own office, complete with seating area for receiving guests. My boss spends most of the day in there, though he often comes out in the afternoon when he has no appointments to chat (this seems to be a general thing – everyone is a lot more relaxed in the afternoon). At the head of the room are the two chiefs’ desks (specialties currently unknown). Then there are two columns of six desks each trailing towards the doors. I am at the end of one of these columns, sitting next to my supervisor and across from the office lady (who serves the tea to visitors and takes care of a lot of the day-to-day operations like mail and bills).

Due to a quirk of architecture, I am the only person visible through the door to the office when someone comes into the building. Especially in the afternoon, when more people are out running office errands, it can look like I’m the only person around. Town residents come in with questions about the museum (I should mention that our building houses the board of education as well as the town’s library, museum, auditorium, ballroom, and conference rooms), see me, and…hesitate. They start walking past the office, acting like they meant to head straight through to the playground out the back. Luckily, as they come past the door, the office lady and my supervisor come into view and the visitors veer inside, suddenly brave.

Another reason it’s harder to go around snapping photos – I’m no longer anonymous. I thought I stuck out in Nagoya, but there I had a shot at not being recognized. Here, everybody knows my name, and if they don’t, they can certainly put two and two together. That, combined with the fact that I’m basically now a monstrous combination of Japanese public servant/teacher/representative for all Americans, means that I have to keep close tabs on my public image. Thankfully I was always a bit of a goody two-shoes anyway.

What else? I’m kind of glad that I delayed blogging about the weather, because it’s been crazy unpredictable. It was…warm when I arrived, but quickly became pleasant, then murderously hot, then it gradually became more manageable, then it rained, then it was nice, etc., etc. It thunder-stormed this morning and was really cool, but warmed up and was super sunny this afternoon. I suspect I won’t have a handle on things until the possible choices become ‘cold’ and ‘really cold’ and ‘cold with snow’.

That’s all I have for now. I have another draft that I wrote a week ago that contains only barely comprehensible notes to myself that I should tackle now, before they become even more incomprehensible. A short post on my Sapporo trip is also upcoming, along with a more detailed account than I put on Facebook of a festival I attended, and maybe a before and after series about my house.

Other than that, I’m going to take suggestions right out of the gate – any questions you have? Want to send me on a photo quest? Ask away!


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