Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Hello Holidays

Today was my last day of 2009 at Maruko. I played the Mariah Carey Christmas song for the 10000th and final time...I never want to hear that song again. Ohmiya-sensei was only too happy to take said CD home with him for the Christmas season; in our classes, not only did he insist on repeating the song five times for the 'fill in the blanks activity' (no one needs to listen to Mariah five times) but he would press the play button at sporadic points in the lesson, including the parts at which I was trying to explain things to the students...

Here are my favourite students from class 2-3;

They made me Christmas cards with the loveliest, sweetest, most heartfelt messages inside.

And so begins the task of making ones in return. I'll drop them off on my way to Josei on Thursday morning.

Today's thoughts and happenings; I really want to start exercising in the New Year. I'm going to pluck up the courage to buy aesthetically ugly 'sporty' clothes and go running or join the gym.
I want to become a better teacher.
I missed someone;we made lovely January plans. I received a really lovely message from a friend.
I really like persimmons but I think I eat too many of them. Is it bad to eat five a day?
Sushi is possibly one of my favourite things to eat.
Why do I stay up late into the midnight hours despite the fact that I am always tired in the mornings?
I am bursting with happiness at the thought of having a new girl friend in Marugame.
I am craving new reading material.
I can't wait to see my family.


Friday, 18 December 2009

Why I should stay...

Winter is here in my little town; I love wrapping up warm in lovely winter clothes. My morning cycles have become increasingly quicker as I pedal twice as hard against the sharp winds to get into the warmth. I am becoming quite accustomed to the purplish/red colour my cold hands assume in the mornings due to being gloveless on my bike - ah,I am missing those beautifully chic gloves adorned with little red buttons to match my coat (what a pity these gloves only exist in my mind...)

I haven't written in a long time. Things have changed...wonderfully so. So wonderfully in fact, that I have had a complete change of heart about the future. I think that I want to stay here for longer. I have a funny feeling in my heart telling me that to leave in March is just too soon.

I can't put into words this feeling I have so I am going to talk about the things that have made me blissfully happy lately...

Here I am with my colleagues from Josei; Matsamura-sensei, Suzuki-sensei and Kishikawa-sensei. (I think I look a bit manic in this photograph, it makes me laugh)A few weeks ago, they invited me for a girly night out. Only Suzuki-sensei can speak English so I left my apartment with a Japanese/English dictionary and a fresh pad of paper so that I could try to express myself with silly doodles, I had the loveliest night; I was silly and girly and had a fun time.I felt like I was out with my girl friends. It was the nicest feeling.

Last Saturday morning, I taught an unusual class at Maruko

Apologies for the slightly crumpled looking poster!

I taught a baking class, in English, to a group of thirty students and a handful of colleagues. If someone suggested this to me three months ago, I would never have thought it within my capabilities. I am still a little awkward and bumbling in my lessons but I am becoming more and more confident as I get to know my students better each day. I was so proud of myself that Saturday; we baked some beautiful things and spending time outside of a classroom context, with a small cross section of this tiny community I live in made me glow with happiness. I have so much love for my students and colleagues. I will never ever forget this day.

I turned 23 on Monday and was made a real fuss of at school. I was given a plant from my colleagues at Maruko (which I am determined to care for well, though its beauty is somewhat questionable...) and all kinds of trinkets and treasures from the students; handmade cards, CDs, photographs, sweets. Incidentally, lots of fruit from various students' grandmothers' - persimmons are always welcome :-)

One of my students, Yuki made me this card to tell me about her favourite band, Arashii. Look at how much thought has gone into it. I couldn't get a clear photograph of it, but some of the descriptions of the band memebers are very funny, my favourite being the description of Matsumoto Jun; "Matsumoto Jun - Isabel, you must know, he is sobriety itself!"

On Wednesday, the girls at Josei threw me a belated birthday party...I have eaten so much cake this week.

Thank you to everyone from back home, Ireland and America who sent me gifts and birthday wishes - thank you cards coming soon <3

This evening, I went to Maruko's Bonenkai. A bonenkai is a special party that takes place at the end of the year to forget about (the bad things that have happened in) the year and to welcome in a new year. Here I am with Kishishita-sensei, Taoka-sensei and O-Hira-sensei. Everyone at the party got presents; I wanted O-Hira-sensei's present so that I can make lovely warm comfort food for the winter time but I had to make do with something uselessly ridiculous!

I've been teaching Christmas lessons at school for the past couple of weeks. One of the activities we do is to listen to Christmas songs and do a 'fill in the blanks' game. I am too sentimental; the first Christmas lesson I taught made me get tears in my eyes. Seeing forty studious kids, most wearing the facemasks (that I find oh so sinister),bobbing their heads,tapping their feet and mouthing the words was the most endearing thing ever to see.

Even though I mentioned the beginnings of my happiness a few entries ago, I truly feel myself now. I feel like I am living here rather than simply existing. I have friends here; I can pick up my phone, drop someone an e-mail and a cycle ride/train ride later, be in company over a cup of coffee or a cosy dinner. I love my students; I know names and personalities, I have a favourite class. I am so lucky to have such wonderful and caring colleagues; they are my Japan parents as well as people I work with. I feel that there is so much yet to see, do and experience that to leave in March would really be cutting it short. I wish I could put into words exactly what I experienced in my first few months of being here. As dramatic as it seems, I felt like I was losing part of myself; like I was living in some kind of bubble. I felt tentative, unsettled,kind of empty and aimless. I feel that though it has been a painfully slow process,I have come a long way since August.

I am going to turn over a new leaf next year. Now that I am settled, I want to start my adventure anew;
<3 I am going to apply myself to studying Japanese with more enthusiasm. Being unable to speak Japanese is a source of frustration every day. It makes me feel powerless. I have started learning ten Kanji each day; Kanji is a logographic writing system - Kanji are symbols that represent words and I find them both beautiful and fascinating. The Kanji for bengoshi (lawyer) is an interesting one;it is made up of three Kanji; eloquence, protection and expert. Nice eh?
<3 I want to read more; I miss the comforting feeling of curling up with a good book. I haven't read much since I arrived which has made me kind of sad as back home, I devoured books.
<3 I am going to eat more healthily; I will put more thought into cooking. I will buy nice cooking things.
<3 Take more pictures
<3 Be more adventurous
<3 Make more friends
<3 I am going to make my apartment a home.
<3 I am going to make more things.
<3 I am going to explore Marugame more.

Oh, a really strange thing has happened which is too strange to go unmentioned. When Nicolas lived in Montreal, he had two friends called Aaron and Vivian who I met when I visited him. Vivian is now living here in Marugame, teaching English too! It's such a small world. I am so happy for a girly friend here in this town. I can't wait for cafe and cake trips :-)


Monday, 16 November 2009

Let's enjoy Osaka!

At the weekend I went to Osaka with Ed and Sean. I'm really glad that I managed to see Kyoto and Osaka on two consecutive weekends; the contrasts between the two cities were even more apparent to me. I think that Osaka lacks the sophistication of Kyoto yet more than makes up for this in other ways. One of the first things that struck me about Osaka was how friendly the people were. If I could choose a word to describe my brief encounter with Osakans, it would perhaps be 'earthy'. Yes, earthy is the word I am looking for. So many people were not only willing, but eager to help me out with directions and the like. It was a strange but heart warming feeling to be approached like that.

Lots of Osakans...

We went to see a Kabuki play in Osaka. Kabuki is one of the oldest traditional Japanese theatre forms. I'm glad that I went to see one but after about two hours, I wanted to leave the theatre. I kept thinking about all the art and interesting areas to explore. I spent the rest of the time nodding off and impatiently waiting for the protagonist to commit seppuku (a horrible Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment). Oh dear, how uncultured I sound...

After the play had finished, I wandered around Amerika-mura which is said to be Osaka's equivalent to Tokyo's Harajuku. It was the incredible. I have (sadly) become quite accustomed to clothes shops that cater for the over ninety fives in my town, so they made my heart glow.

some satisfactory America-mura shop assistants.

Ed and I found another thing which made me nostalgic for London. Oh, how I wish to ride the tube again!

That evening, we met up with some ALTs who live in Osaka, three of whom are Londoners.Here are some lovely British people; Roland and Dave. I want to make friends in every place as I visit;experiences are always more fulfilling when you know people in far flung places.

Ohh I must tell you about the hostel I stayed in. I left hostel booking to the very last minute and consequently, had very little choice left by Thursday evening. I ended up finding a really cheap place, just two stops away from Namba (where all the interesting things happen). Hotel Mikado was awful. My room smelt like the door hadn't been opened in thirty years and there were suspicious looking stains everywhere. There seemed to be a string of similar looking hotels along the road - I dare you to try one of them! How about Hotel Sweet? It's right next door to Mikado! Here is a picture of my luxurious Osakan abode...bleak...

Despite the uninviting atmosphere, I met a lovely man from Syria called Aladdin (ace!) who is travelling the world. He told me that I looked like a cabin crew member in my hat and coat. I have been compared to several things whilst wearing my hat and coat; Paddington bear and Madaleine. What do you think?

The next day, I woke up really early due to the pervasive desire to get out of the hostel. I went to see Osaka castle first, which was very beautiful, but I parted company with Ed and Sean to heaad back to America-mura. It was here that I met these three lovely ladies. They work for a street fashion magazine and asked if they could take some pictures of me for it. When this happens in London,a camera is thrust in your face, usually at the people crushing bend by Topshop (though I hear that the recently constructed Shibuya style crossing will dispel this, hooray!) and it makes for an unpleasant experience. Not in Osaka....the girls took me to a small studio, tucked at the very top of a building along America-mura and snapped away, it was lovely :-)

It just so happened that on the floor below the studio was Neko no Jikan; the cat cafe. I was so happy. I had planned on visiting the cafe but the directions I had were so vague that I didn't think I would ever find it. Ahh, I had the best time! I paid a very modest amount of money for one hour cat time, tea and cake. It was amazing and quelled the pangs of sadness I have been having at being without my Alfie. There were lots of couples there on romantic dates so at the end of my hour's cat time, I did feel very much like a spinster...amplified by the fact that I was covered in cat hair, and probably smelt a bit catty too. Owh, I hope this is not a sign of what awaits me later in life!

feeding time...

In Japan, each prefecture/city has a regional delicacy and I have made it my aim to try the culinary delight of each place I visit. Osaka is famous for takoyaki. Takoyaki is a dumpling made of batter,diced baby octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onion. Osakans love food and are not precious about it, so there were lots of stalls dotted around selling takoyaki. I found it disappointing,it made me feel a bit sick. :-(

On the other hand, I have discovered what I think is my new favourite fruit; persimmons. They are only in season for a very brief window so I am making the most of them by eating several every day. I adore them. If you can try one, please do; they are truly sweets of nature! I am also enjoying pumpkin too. It seems that I like orange fruits and vegetables.


Recently, my colleagues have been asking me to spend time with them at the weekends which makes me feel happy. In a few weekends' time, Williams-sensei has invited me to her home for dinner and in the first weekend of December,I am going to go to a tea ceremony festival with Taoka-sensei and eat lots of Japanese sweets. I want to have deeper friendships with my colleagues, but I want to travel so much; it is through travel that I feel I can find the most happiness.

It is only four days until I go on my next trip to Beppu. Beppu is on Kyushu, the most southerly of the four main islands and is famous for its hot springs. I am going with eleven other people. I know a couple of people, Lorianne and Iain who I would like to spend more time with, but I only know Ciaran well so I am looking forward to making some new friends :-)


Thursday, 12 November 2009

Bad Week

I am really looking forward to this weekend as this week has been one of the most stressful I have had since coming to Japan.

On Monday, a strange thing happened to me. I was in my apartment writing some letters when someone rang the doorbell. I turned on the intercom to see a man with a scarf pulled up over his face. I didn't open the door but he persisted for forty minutes; ringing the doorbell and lurking around outside. He then went around to the back of my apartment and began throwing stones at the back window. At this point, I felt really frightened, so reluctantly, had to play the helpless female and call my friend Ciaran.

The man then came back to my front door again and once more, started to ring the bell. I turned the intercom on again to see that this time, he had taken the scarf away from his face; I knew who it was. It was Fujii, one of my third year students (who I have mentioned on this blog before). All the students in school have to wear a name badge on their blazer and Fujii began holding his up in front of the intercom saying 'Isabel, it's me Fujii. Please open the door, I want to tell you that I love you. I have a gift for you.' This is comedic in hindsight; next, he took out his electronic dictionary and began tapping away, presumably to find some more persuasive language.

It's against the rules for me to open the door to my students, rumours could spread quickly (illustrative by the fact that I've had some students asking me if I had enjoyed the persimmons they saw me buying at the supermarket...) so I just stayed silent. Fujii wouldn't give up, he kept calling through the door and holding up a big floral bag. At this point, Ciaran turned up and explained to Fujii that he shouldn't really be visiting me outside of school. Reluctantly, Fujii cycled away but returned about an hour after Ciaran had left to drop a note through my door which said 'Isabel, I love you very (spelt 'bery')much, is tall man your boyfriend?'

The next morning, I opened my door to find the floral bag sitting outside, inside which were the most ornately wrapped Japanese sweets, a love note and a hastily written note shoved at the bottom of the bag saying 'I am sorry for my careless behaviour, I will never see or speak to you again.'

I had to go and tell the school and I felt awful. Fujii and I talk all the time; he's a really great guy and I didn't want to get him into trouble. To make things worse, I had to teach his class in the first lesson. He usually sits right at the front; this time, he was right at the very back with his head down. I had to approach his group to help them out with a question and when I looked at him, his eyes were all puffy; he had obviously been told off and had been crying. This set me off too and I had to pretend to go and photocopy something.

Sometimes I find my job difficult. I am so close in age to my 18,19 year old students and they can often misinterpret my friendliness as something else. I was supposed to meet with Fujii and his form teacher that afternoon but Fujii didn't show up. He said he was too embarrassed to see me and didn't want to see me again. I've been thinking about the incident ever since. I feel such a bitch for snitching on Fujii but I was very frightened when I saw him with the scarf over his face. All I could think of were the horrible things that have happened to some female teachers over here. I feel upset that he probably won't come and talk to me again; we used to talk about music all the time, he is such a sweetie.

I took a day off on Wednesday as I felt unwell and exhausted. I went in today but when the teachers heard me cough, there was pandemonium. Before I could even sit down, I was whisked off to the hospital where I had to pay ten pounds for the doctor to tell me that I didn't have swine flu. My school is so neurotic. I wasn't allowed back to school incase I 'infected' the students so today was a duvet day. I have a lesson on debating tomorrow which I am not looking forward to. Japanese people are not confrontational, I am not confrontational so I cannot forsee an abundance of debating sparks flying...

I'm totemo tired.

sweet dreams


EDIT - Friday - today marked the turnaround of the so-so week I have had. The debating lesson went brilliantly because of my discerning choice of topics for the students to debate. What 18 year olds don't enjoy talking about romance? We debated the fun (albeit superficial perhaps?!) topics of 'is love more important than money?', 'Is it better to have a partner who is beautiful or a partner who has a good personality' and finally 'You have fallen in love with your best friend's girlfriend/boyfriend. What should you do?' I didn't have a very moral bunch. Lots of the boys especially said 'go for the girl! No regret please!'

What put my mind most at rest was that I spoke with Fujii and Naoi-sensei. Fujii said sorry to me and then asked Naoi-sensei to ask me if it was alright for Fujii to give me a 'sorry hug', ha. He clasped his arms around me for a long time which made both Naoi-sensei and I laugh. I'm so glad we are able to talk again.


Last week, I got paid so I decided to take a trip to Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years so it's the place to go if you want to be overwhelmed by shrines, temples and traditional culture. I had to go on my own as my ALT co-workers have either been here in Japan for a long time already and have seen Kyoto or, plan to stay in Japan for a long time so don't feel the urgency that I do to squeeze as much travel in as possible. I was a little nervous about going alone. In short, I can't read maps. To me, reading a map is as difficult as learning Japanese. I got mildly good at map reading when I temped in London ie. I reached the point where I only had to ask for clarification of directions once at the tube station, rather than return about three times to ask the station men to set me on my way again. Fortunately, Kyoto is one of the most tourist friendly cities I have ever been to and I didn't get lost once, I was proud of myself!

Here is a visual tour of the route I did by bus, train and on foot last weekend:

I caught a 5am bus from Takamatsu and arrived in Kyoto at 9am. My first stop was Fushimiinari Shrine, one of the most famous shrines in Japan. I think it appears in a film...nice bit of information for you there! Fushimiinari is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be his messengers. There were so many torii gates, they looked beautiful and it was so peaceful to walk through them at such an early time in the morning.

My beautiful new coat which will see me through the Japanese winter :-) It was a good weekend to visit; the sun was shining for the whole weekend but the air felt nice and crisp.

I like the photograph above; very Japanese eh?

the fox messengers...I think these looked nicer than the mean looking stone fox statues dotted about.

On the way back from Fushimiinari, I met this lady at the train station. Hanako told me that she is a singer and gave me four tickets to see her show in December; happy Christmas family! Back at JR Kyoto station, she made me pose for several pictures with her much to the amusement of the ticket inspectors...I like that she was wearing red lippy (I don't really see Japanese ladies wear a lot of makeup).

Next step was Kiyomizudera temple (the temple of pure water) It's in the hills of eastern Kyoto and is supposed to be one of the best places in Japan to view the turning of the leaves.

Just behind Kiyomizudera's main hall is a place where you can drink some spring water which is said to have special powers. If you drink the water on the right hand side, it is said to bring beauty, the water in the center is said to bring wisdom and drinking the water on the left hand side brings good health. I drank the water for wisdom. Look at the girl on the right hand side (our left), she is eager to become beautiful!

Next I went to Gion which is Kyoto's most famous geisha district. I went in the early evening so it wasn't very exciting. I was a little disappointed actually, probably due to my naive expectations of geisha running (yes, they have to be running. Everyone runs in Japan) around everywhere but there were none to be found. I decided to return after dark and in the meantime found lots of zakka shops (see last entry) full of winding staircases and shop assistants with asymmetric fringes and peg leg trousers to keep me amused for a while. When I headed back to Gion, I saw a geisha leading a salary man back to her teahouse! I spent too long rummaging in my bag to find my camera so no picture I'm afraid....

In the evening, I found the most beautiful vegetarian cafe (the first I have found here) and I had the best meal I've had since coming to Japan.I had vegetable gyoza and a mushroom ramen - lovely. My favourite part was the dessert; a Japanese herb style muffin with plump black bleans, mugwort dough, organic soy bean paste and mochie. Mmmm, t'was delicious.

The staff in the cafe were so lovely too and gave me cake for the journey home. I had to wait for a bus for ages and watched a group of about fifty university students play the biggest game of paper, rock, scissors I have ever seen. * Rock, paper, scissors is called 'janken' here. All my students play it in my lessons to decide who will speak first. I now have to leave aside some time in my lesson plans for 'janken time' since it is a reoccuring part of the lesson...they are lightening fast at it!*

Before tumbling into bed, I went to the twelfth floor of Kyoto train station to see the city lights by night. On the way up, I passed this beautiful Christmas tree. There were lots of couples sitting on the steps around it, they looked happy. I got a bit teary. I miss being around people I love so much. Mum, Dad, Oliver, I can't wait for you to be here with me this Christmas time. <3

The next day, I hung out with a lovely Dutch girl called Lucienne who I met in the hostel I stayed at. We went to a food market called Nishiki in the morning. Ahh, I can't wait to take Mum, Dad and Oliver here. Some of the things were truly works of art. I couldn't capture how colourful it was - I am such a poor photographer, forgive me.

Look, biscuits with flowers on them!

A snappy little machine that made pancakes :-)

Here is Kinkakuji; the Golden Temple. At the moment,I am reading a book by a Japanese author called Yukio Mishima about Kinkakuji so I was excited to see it. It fulfilled all expectations - it was really beautiful.

Lucienne and I...I think I look a bit creepy...

Lucienne and I parted company after Kinkakuji as she was catching the Shinkansen to Osaka. I really like chance meetings. It is unlikely that I will see Lucienne again but it was the most lovely thing to spend time with a complete stranger who turned out to be such great company :-) I only had a couple of hours to spare after Lucienne left so I went to visit Ginkakuji (the Silver Temple) but it was being renovated so it wasn't that great - I'll go back at Christmas time.

I forgot to book a bus ticket home so had to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) instead. If you ever get the chance to take the Shinkansen to or from Kyoto, you should listen to the album The Lemon of Pink by The Books. It was the most perfect thing to listen to on the journey home. I really enjoyed Kyoto, despite being alone. It is such a beautiful city with so much to see that I didn't get lonely (apart from when I saw the Christmas tree!).

This weekend, I am going to Osaka with Ed and his friend Sean. Osaka stands in stark contrast to the beauty and traditionalism of Kyoto. It is Japan's party city and Osakans are supposed to be very earthy and laid back kind of people. Being very commerce minded, legend has it that rather than Konnichiwa, Osakans greet eachother with the phrase 'Mookarimakka?'; are you making money? I am excited to see Osaka :-)


Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Zakka tour

For the past week or so, I have felt so happy, the reason being that I finally feel at home here. I shall do my best to explain.

Some time last week, something just clicked and everything seemed to fall into place. I think perhaps the feeling of hostility towards a new culture or environment that culture shock is said to often bring has passed and in theoretical speak, I am at stage three - 'acceptance and embrace'. Oh dear, I sound like a self help book, forgive me.

Since arriving in Japan in August, I've had some happy times here and there but for the most part, have felt utter bewilderment. Feeling bewildered can assume many guises and mine made me feel even more sensitive than usual;I feel I can be honest now and admit openly (where better than here eh?)that there have been many tears since August. I worried about everything. I felt tired and fatigued all the time. I found it difficult to recall my reasons for wanting to come to Japan. The thing that upset me most of all was that I felt I had lost my curiosity. What's more, all the other Westerners I know here seemed to be throwing themselves into life and really assimilating well. I felt so tentative and hesitant about trying to embrace things.

I have been having the best time ever lately, namely because I am filling my time with fun things. I have started Japanese classes and look forward to seeing Hanh and Hoi, my two Vietnamese friends there each week. They always cycle me home and we speak in broken Japanese all the way. My lessons at school have been going so well. I feel such an attachment to and genuine fondness for my students now. Instead of seeing a sea of forty blank faces, I can pick out names, faces and personalities from each class. I still have a few difficult classes - Japan is the land of the silent child, but I am learning to coax them into participating.

This is Yumi. I met Yumi at a party a couple of weeks back. Yumi likes arty little shops, making things, cake eating and stamp collecting. Today, we went on a zakka tour. Zakka is the Japanese word for very small and cute things and ya is the Japanese word for shop. Yumi is oozing with enthusiasm and she is the prettiest stamp collector I know.

I went to a Halloween party in Takamatsu last week. My camera ran out of batteries so I only got a few snaps. Here is Yumi, Ed and I.

Cat, an Obaasan (Japanese grandma) and witch

This weekend, I am going to Kyoto, so a more picture filled entry is on its way soon. Ahh, I feel so happy to be here! I am beginning to find some beauty in Marugame; I must take a picture of the trees by the castle. The leaves have turned the most beautiful shades of red and golden. I am so excited about all the trips I have coming up; Kyoto this weekend, Osaka the weekend after (I'm going to stay in a capsule hotel - google it!) and a trip to Fukuoka in Kyuushu in the next national holiday we have coming up. I'm not sure if seven months is long enough for my lovely new friendships to blossom and to see and do all the things I have planned :-)


Friday, 30 October 2009


Autumn has well and truly arrived here in Japan. I wake up in the mornings with a cold nose, the morning air is crisp and the leaves are turning beautiful shades of golden and red. My students have been telling me lots about the turning of the leaves so I thought it fitting to take a trip to Kyoto to see the Autumn leaves in all their splendour. This trip to Kyoto will be the first time that I have travelled alone in Japan. I am looking forward to it; I have a list full of temples, shrines, galleries and arty cafesthat I plan on visiting. I can wander, amble and root where I want and as I wish, it will be liberating!

My students have been helping me to plan my trip. They took their school trip to Kyoto and have been giving me lots of recommendations. Some useful:

"Dear Isabel. When you go to the Kyoto, please be careful. In front of the Kyoto station, there is sometimes a man who is disguised as a woman. Sometimes he appears there. Please be careful."

Some not so useful:

"Dear Isabel, please go to Kiyomizudera. There you can have pictures with womans. I love womans. I love you."

"Dear Isabel. Let's go the Kyoto hot spring together. It will make our skin smooth to the touch"

Some brimming with enthusiasm:

"Isabel, LET'S GO TO THE KYOTO! You can enjoy the Kyoto!"

This evening, I went to my welcome party. It was the best meal I have ever had in my life at a traditional Japanese restaurant in the town across from Marugame. The evening consisted of dish after dish of perfectly crafted delights. Every dish was a work of art, truly. The colours were incredible and never again will I call Japanese food bland. Every flavour was so perfect. My favourite things were the mushroom and chestnut soup and the seabass and sumomo (Japanese plum) dish. Some were so beautiful that I had to be reminded to eat them; first by a gentle nudge from Ohmiya-sensei, which ended up as hearty whacks on the back as he became more intoxicated.

My teachers made some speeches, as is always the way at Japanese parties and said some lovely things about me. There is one class I visit every couple of weeks and I have always wondered what the tally chart on the right hand side of the black board is for. Naoi sensei told me that this is a tally chart that the boy students in 3-6 keep to count down how many days it is until my next visit. It nearly made me cry... again! Ono, Fijii and Manami, my favourite students are in 3-6 so it's always my favourite class to visit. When I go there, it feels like I am visiting friends more than students. My teachers also bought me some beautiful flowers, I love my teachers at Maruko so much.

Here is a picture of me and my happy family. Ohmiya-sensei is the little man to my right.


Monday, 19 October 2009


If I could describe today, October 19th 2009, the one word I would choose would be 'phone'. It has been a long long day. Though my head is full of words,my eyelids feel heavy and I am looking forward to drifting to sleep tonight.

Today started with a missed alarm. When my Japanese phone runs out of battery, it won't sound a previously set alarm. This happened last night and this morning, I woke up at the horribly late time of 8.00am....I have to be at school for 8.15am. I arrived at school with some hastily applied mascara and the biggest bed head hair known to the Japanese population. The first thing Ohmiya-sensei said to me when I reached school was 'Oh Isabel, you look very different today' ha!

After school, I went to my ukulele class in a small town just outside Takamatsu city. I have to take a bus along a big highway, which drops me off at a shopping mall. From there, it is a very long walk to the school. It was dark and cold tonight so I decided to jump in a taxi. My ukulele class was lovely; there are eight Japanese people, myself and the teacher Jeremy, who is from Hawaii.Jeremy has lived in Japan for a long time and as everybody in the class apart from me is Japanese, he speaks in Japanese for the whole class. I can pick out some words, but for the most part, the Japanese washes over me. It is nice however to be constantly hearing it and tonight I learnt the Japanese words for 'chord', 'strum' and 'chorus' We played sweet ukulele music and some people sang - it was so cute :-)

When the class had ended and I was fishing around in my bag for my phone, I could not find it. I had left it in the taxi. Disaster. I got that dreaded knot of fear in my stomach. Apples are expensive here, I felt nauseous at the thought of how much a lost phone would cost to replace. By this point, Jeremy had left and I was in the company of two ladies, both of whom had very little English. I managed to tell them what had happened. They were so sweet and kind, called up the taxi company and within minutes, my phone was returned to me. I have never felt such relief and also amazement at how super efficient the 'getting phone back' operation turned out to be. The two ladies then drove me all the way back to the station so that I could catch my train back to Marugame. We could barely understand eachother, yet they showed such genuine kindness that I cried in the car (surprise surprise, I seem to be even more sentimental than usual since moving to Japan). They kept laughing and saying 'ahh, soft heart lady, soft heart lady!' I love made up Japanese English. When one learns a language, or has very little knowledge of a language, it is difficult/impossible to use linguistic subtlety. As a result, I think that things are said with a simplicity and honesty that I find to be very beautiful.

* MORE SCATTERBRAINED MISHAPS* 1. Once on the train, I realised that in my lost phone panic, I had left my Japanese study books and diary at the ukulele class. I shall think about this tomorrow...

2. Back at my apartment, I was making some tea and smelt an awful burning smell....the teatowel had caught fire. Gah, I need to go to bed!

I had a proper conversation with two of my boy students at school today.
Ono and Fujii are third graders so they are eighteen years old. The last time I saw them was at a lesson in which we talked about our favourite songs. I played an Arcade Fire song. Arcade Fire are Ono's favourite band and I could see his face light up when I played the cd. I love that music is such a universal language.I experienced that both in my ukulele class and with Ono. We sat with our iPods for ages, telling eachother about different bands. On Friday, we are going to swap mix cds :-) Fujii hopes to go to Kobe University to study English and Chinese. He told me about Tor Road in Kobe. It's an area full of delicious bakeries and shops full of handmade treasures. I am going to go back to Kobe as soon as I can. Although at times, it is difficult to teach older kids, (they are not so fickle,and a handful think that they are too cool, so it takes some time to gain their trust and respect.) one of the things I do like is that I am so close in age to the third graders that it is possible to make friendships with them. I have a little book (well, I did before I left it at the ukulele class) full of recommendations from my students; good shops to go to in Takamatsu, bands to listen to, books and magazines to read. I really like going to school at Maruko.

I'm not sure what my plans for this weekend are, but the Autumnal hibernation that my camera is curently enjoying, deep in the depths of my bag, will come to an end as I take some pictures. It has been a while.

Oyasumi nasai.


Tuesday, 13 October 2009


Last week, whilst almost spitting the entire contents of his bento box over me, Ohmiya-sensei told me to take a look at the work of a Japanese artist called Akira Yamaguchi. He said he had a feeling that I would like it or rather, "I think you can enjoy it". This phrase, along with 'Let's/Please enjoy it" has become one of my favourite Japanese English phrases. My students say it all the time; I like its simplicity and I feel happy when someone says it.

Akira Yamaguchi is an artist who appropriates the style of old Japanese paintings and infuses them with modern inflections, in a very humorous and often ironic way. For example, he will paint a picture of a man grooming a horse that has motorcycle wheels instead of legs. I like his paintings of Edo style villages in which he uses the Katakana alphabet (this is the Japanese alphabet used for Western or borrowed terms) instead of the Kanji alphabet. I think you can enjoy Akira Yamaguchi's work!

Last weekend, I crossed the Seto Ohashi bridge to visit my friends in Okayama city. Ahh, Okayama is amazing; I had such a happy time there.I went to a really beautiful little cafe for lunch before heading to Okayama Castle. Okayama Castle is often nicknamed 'the crow'... for its dark and ominous appearance.

It seems that Saturday was my lucky day as right next to the castle, there was a small petting pen full of rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks and chicks. This made my weekend, really and truly.
I really wish I had a pet here. There is a cat for sale here in Marugame. He is a beautiful tabby cat called Tomoko and has been sitting in a basket, adorned with flowers and streamers down at the shopping arcade for the past couple of days. I want him.

Autumn is arriving in Japan. It is such a welcome change from the Japanese summer time (the hottest temperatures I have ever had to endure, and I only caught the tail end of it). I love the hazy sunshine and the crisp, gentle breeze. I think that Japanese parks and gardens are best enjoyed in the Autumn. Korakuen Park is supposedly one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in this country. At the park, we met a lady called Keiko and her friend. Keiko was the most infectiously happy person you could meet, I'm going to write to her :-)

On Saturday evening, I met up with some more of my friends from training. It was so great to see them.

On Sunday morning, after a lovely breakfast, I took a trip to Kurashiki. Kurashiki is a small city beside Okayama city. It's name can roughly be translated as 'town of storehouses' which refers to Kurashiki's important role as a rice distribution center back in the Edo period. These pictures don't really capture the beauty of Kurashiki due to my incompetency with cameras - forgive me!

Kurashiki was so beautiful; the canal area was lined with interesting shops and restaurants. It made me long for a girl friend; I felt bad dragging the boys into wooden toy shops and the like. I hope to visit again soon, especially after Taoka-sensei told me yesterday that there is a famous tofu restaurant in Kurashiki in which they even make their desserts from tofu, eee!

I felt flat and upset on the train home from Okayama on Sunday evening. I miss city life so much, more than I had ever imagined I would. I spoiled what could have been a really lovely conversation with my Mum (I'm sorry) and went to bed in a foul mood. When I returned back to school on Monday however, my mood lifted. When I am at school, I don't think of Marugame in an aesthetic context. It is impossible to think badly or negatively of Marugame when I work with some of its nicest, sweetest and thoughtful inhabitants. My colleagues and students at Maruko are the best I could ever ask for.

On Monday, I got some post in the in house post box; one girl had written me two copies of the same letter - one copy in English and one copy in Japanese so that I could use it to study from. Another girl made me a coconut cake, and I spent time after school talking with some of my other students. My colleagues are just as thoughtful. I told Ohmiya sensei that I was thinking of visiting my friend Rachel next weekend in Kasaoka (over on the mainland). Before I had even finished the sentence, he ran (or rather stomped) off to get various ferry, train and bus timetables and even suggested driving me there. In a couple of Fridays time, I am attending a Welcome Party that my colleagues have organised for me. They made invitations for it in purple, my favourite colour.

Marugame isn't the experience I was expecting, which gives me an even greater curiosity to explore parts of Japan in which I can find inspiration. Perhaps a blessing in disguise? When I think of the kindness that people have shown towards me however; from little gifts to much needed motherly like text messages from my colleagues, it makes me feel that I have perhaps been placed here for a reason. It is very comforting to know that even though I am very far away from home, and essentially alone here, there are people close by who are always looking out for me. That is a wonderful thing.