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 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.