Tanuki are Japanese racoon-like animals. You can often find a statue of one outside restaurants, cafes and bars beckoning customers in for revelry and good times. (As you can see by their cheery faces, fat bellies and often clutching a bottle of sake. ME, THO.) They’re believed to bring good fortune to the proprietors.
Also hilariously they’re usually portrayed with enormous, protruding testicles. There’s even a folk song which pretty much translates to:
“Tan-tan-tanuki’s balls ring ring ring The wind’s stopped blowing but they swing-swing-swing!”
Never change, Japan.
Also for my fellow Animal Crossing stan: Capitalist overlord Tom Nook is actually a tanuki, and his English name kinda sounds like it – Tom Nook – Taanooki – tanuki. Geddit?
Back in Autumn 2019, one of my favourite teachers at my elementary school Shirai-sensei gave everyone a local mikan orange. It was easily the best orange I’ve ever eaten, and when I told her so she delightedly explained they’re actually from her father’s orange grove. (A term I only learned while writing this blog as I assumed oranges grew in an orchard – apparently not!)
A week later, she beckoned me over to her car after school, gave me a bag and told me I could take as many home as I could fit inside my backpack. While harvesting season was already over, she promised me the following year she would take me to see the oranges and pick some for myself.
And true to her word in October 2020 she drove me and my friend Haruna to see the trees, help harvesting them and bring some home for ourselves. The farm was originally her grandfather’s and her father took over five years ago, working with her mother and a few picking staff.
I also got to catch up with another of my favourite teachers who moved on to another school in March 2020 – she brought her husband and little daughter who was so cute. Her daughter definitely managed to pick more oranges than me!
I’ve only been raspberry picking in the UK, and strawberry picking last year. There’s something so wholesome about picking fruit straight from the tree or bush. The grove grows two types of oranges – the smaller mikan is very sweet with no sourness at all, they remind me of the clementines my mam buys at Christmas. The larger, darker oranges are tart, but not at all bitter.
Although I live in the city, (I’m a bona fide city girl who has a mental breakdown if I’m too far from wifi or a soy flat white…) it was lovely to be out in the Japanese inaka for the day, living my best Ghibli-esque life.
I would have been grateful for even a small handful, but she very kindly gave us a huge box each to fill and we could take home as many as we could carry. We were also able eat as many as we could while we were harvesting! (I taught everyone the term “eating on the job.”)
It was such a wonderful experience I would have otherwise missed if it wasn’t for the kindness of people I’ve met here. Another precious memory I’ll treasure forever.
We also noticed a tiny, quaint train station nearby so looked inside. There was a cute little gift shop and cafe inside ran by a sweet guy who spoke really good English. It had a surprisingly hipsterish vibe and sold local crafts, beers and cookies.
Although we’d more than filled up on oranges, Shirai-sensei took us to a popular Italian restaurant and I had the best pizza and pasta I’ve eaten so far in Japan! (I’m half-Italian so hard to please!)
Shirai-sensei also wouldn’t hear of us paying, and told us it was her present for us. She is so kind!
And if I hadn’t been treated enough, Shirai-sensei gave me and Haruna presents from her recent trip to Kamakura. She picked out the pink earrings for me knowing it’s my favourite colour – they’re made from special sakura shells that are only found on Yuigahama Beach.
It was such a special, surprise gift and they’re absolutely perfect!
It was the sweetest day ever. It can be easy for me to feel disconnected to Japan when a lot of my trips have been cancelled over the past year due to the ‘rona.
But getting to do wholesome stuff like this reminds me of why I moved to this beautiful country in the first place. I hope we can all make more memories in 2021!
Yes I know it’s Feburary, but it’s dawned on me I forgot to write about Christmas here since I was in a funk for most of January. And since this blog is predominantly a diary for me to look back on in years to come, I still want to write about it here.
This year with none of us being able to go home for the holidays, Team Dickcheese(Team Cheezus in polite company) decided to have Friendsmas this year at Ashley’s place.
Well, I say as a group. Ashley as per nearly gave herself a stroke preparing delicious food for us. Matt politely offered to help. Me and Felipe watched, getting drunk and gavreeting about in a very uncivilised manner as per. You can take the girl out of Newcastle but you can’t take Newcastle out of the girl.
She made a fantastic buffet including home-made karaage, sausage rolls (Americans call these ‘pigs in blankets’ – in the UK ‘pigs in blankets’ are sausages wrapped in bacon. Who knew!) and the most delicous garlic-y breadrolls. As well as nibbles my mam calls a ‘picky tea’ of a cheese board (appropriate, given our name), crudités and dips.
She also mentioned she would get a traditional Japanese Christmas cake (vanilla and strawberry cake with a lot of whipped cream) and order something with less dairy for me (I’m lactose resistant) but she ONCE AGAIN took the piss and brought out an entire dessert table: a cheesecake, fruit tart and the best brownies I’ve ever had!
My mam loves keeping traditions alive, and although me and my sister are in our 30s (me) and 20s (her) she still loves preparing Christmas stockings for us.
While the Cheezes had agrred to not exchange gifts this year, I couldn’t resist sharing this fun family tradition with the huns.
I just got three ¥100 stockings from Daiso, and filled them with goodies. I got a bunch of UK, American and Japanese snacks from Donki as well as other treats traditionally found in them like some socks and a little toy. (I forgot to put an orange in!)
As a little extra, I found sweet little enamel pins with the flags of US states, which I ordered and pinned to the stockings: Nevada for Ashley, Florida for Matt and Texas for Felipe. I also found some cool iron-on patches to personalise them.
Otherwise, I just took it easy over Christmas break. I really wanted to go to Tokyo and visit my friend Farrah again – but with ‘rona cases skyrocketing in the capital, it was safer to just stay in Hamamatsu.
I was also completely spoiled by my family and friends – my parents and sister mailed a box of goodies, and I also opened parcels from my friends Marie, Claire and Lauren. Thank you all so so much, it was such a surprise!
I also treated myself to something I’ve wanted for a while but always put off buying – an instax mini with a bunch of cute films and pens to decorate them. I can’t wait to be able to take cute checkis with my friends!
I always get the January blues pretty bad as I love Christmas so much – but now it’s February I’m about back into the swing of usual life again in Japan.
Today I was doing “What do you want me to do?” with my 3rd graders. They had to answer “I want you to bring _________” in relation to a BBQ, a birthday party or a school trip.
One student said: “I want you to bring me a highball.” (A highball is a popular drink here consisting of scotch and soda water. It also comes in the form of a lethal 9% canned cocktail that TRUST ME leaves you with a pounding headache the next day.)
Nice try though, me little hun. Aww, they know their ALT is from Newcastle.
I guess this is the Japanese schoolkid equivalent of “Can you gan into the shop for me…?“
This catchy and adorable children’s choir song from 2013 is having a second wave of popularity in Japanese schools as a rousing ganbarou message in the times of covid.
The chorus is literally: 元気、勇気、ちから – (“genki, yūki, chika-ra” –“energy, courage, power”). Aw.
The theme tune from ‘Play Your Cards Right.’
There’s a short three question quiz during lunch and to announce it, they blast the theme tune from Play Your Cards Right. The show never came to Japan and it’s probably used for something else here, but it makes me think I’m missing a trick by not beginning my classes with “It’s nice to see you, to see you…NICE!” (RIP, Brucey)
They usually play the school song too, which is really cute at my elementary school. Of course can’t post that here for obvious reasons but it also has a lovely message of camaraderie and being proud of the school’s local area. It’s a bop!
However hopefully in a few years when things have may have improved somewhat, this advice will still be relevant. Thanks in advance for reading!
Ahhh, the one major worry everyone has before moving anywhere new, especially if it’s abroad. And you don’t speak the language. And there are cultural barriers between locals and fellow gaijin alike.
“How the hell will I make friends?”
I’m happy to report after 15-ish months in Japan I’m at a point now where I have a few small, solid circles of friends – and not just acquaintances I spend time with out of convenience. (Believe me, there’s a huge difference!)
While it’s very tempting to hide away in your Leopalace eating konbini bentos, remember – people won’t come to you! The best advice I can give you is to try and overcome shyness and put yourself out there.
But how exactly might one do that? Here are some suggestions:
Go to a bar, restaurant or café and chat with the locals.
Every city has at least one ‘gaijin bar’ where the local foreigners seem to gather. It’s a good place to start to meet your fellow expats. Otherwise hit up your local ramen, soba, gyoza, kushikatsu joint – the smaller the better – and chat away to the staff and your fellow patrons if they look friendly. If your Japanese is not up to scratch, gestures and a smile go a long way, but it’s also a great chance to practice!
Get to know the teachers in your school(s).
While it’s intimidating at first – know that you’re not the first ALT they’ve met and you certainly won’t be the last. If you’re teaching at a junior high school, the Japanese English teachers (JTEs) will have a high level of English. But also try to get to know the other teachers as well – ask your tantou for a copy of the staff roster with names, photos and subjects if possible. Or you can go around and ask everyone yourself. Don’t forget the school administrator, janitor, lunch staff and nurse!
You never know where a connection will lead – my young tantou at elementary school was particularly friendly, and when she said she liked sushi I said “We should go to my favourite sushi restaurant sometime!” We did, and we’ve been friends ever since!
Another time a teacher brought me an local mikan orange – seriously the best orange I’ve ever tried – and delightedly, she told me it’s from her father’s farm and guess what…? She’s since driven me to see the trees and even having a go at harvesting them! An experience I definitely wouldn’t have otherwise had!
One thing to note however is that Japanese teachers are very busy and work long hours – so try and catch them when they look like they’re in-between doing something important. The best time is often at the end of sixth period – usually after 3:15ish.
If you’re invited…say yes!
When the infamous Farrah returned to Hamamatsu for her birthday, my pal suggested I go along to meet her. I felt kinda bad about crashing a birthday party, but it was obvious after ten seconds that she didn’t mind a bit. We now chat at least every few days, and even recently met up for a super fun girly weekend in Tokyo.
I also made friends with some of the other party attendees! After keeping in touch, I met up with Donna at a beautiful cafe in the summer. And also me, Elizabeth and Ama grab dinner at least once a month – and we’re also having a girly weekend in Nagoya for over Christmas break! So unless you have a prior engagement, always ALWAYS say yes – you may not be asked a second time.
And remember – if your friend is friends with someone, there’s often a fairly good reason why!
Attend your school enkai.
I personally believe that every ALT should at least go to one school enkai – aka: the teacher’s booze-up.
While there are several smaller enkais dotted around the year, unless you’re really pally with your teachers you’ll likely just be invited to the main ones at the end of term or after a big school event such as sports day.
I’ve written about my experience at my first enkai here. It sounds pretty nerve-wracking on paper, but it’s actually quite a relaxed affair and interesting to see how different everyone can be after a few rounds of nomihoudi. (At the most recent one we had pre-‘rona, I may or may not have ended up in a drinking competition with the vice-principal. And being from Newcastle, TRUST that I was victorious.)
Don’t be intimidated however if you don’t drink alcohol – many teachers don’t and certainly won’t (or at least shouldn’t) judge you. Being all you can eat and drink, you can have as much pop/soda, tea and coffee as you’d like – and a lot of the places I’ve been to even offer mocktails!
While what happens at the enkai stays at the enkai, you’ll find a lot of teachers do warm to you and feel more comfortable chatting to you at school. And again – you never know where simply a polite chat will lead!
As above, be sure to attend the first one you’re asked to – or have a valid excuse why you can’t go. You may be invited to the next one, but definitely not the one after that.
Find your local gaijin community on Facebook.
A quick search should bring up events if not in your local area, then at least the next city over. Although Hamamatsu has a huge expat community, the more interesting events are in neighboring Shizuoka city or Nagoya.
You’ll have to likely run for the last train home – but who knows, you might make a pal who will let you crash at their place next time!
Network with your fellow ALTs.
Ugh, networking. I know, I know.
At the very least, be friendly at initial training and get everyone’s Facebook, Line or email address you gel with. Even if they end up on the other side of the prefecture – who knows, you may keep in touch and then you’ll have someone to potentially meet up with and show you around if you’re in the area.
Because we’re a bunch of nerds we invited the head teacher and trainers for drinks with us on the last day of training. They’re very different once their ties are loosened and they have a few drinks in them. They’re also likely to be living fairly locally and been in Japan a while so will be able to give you advice and recommendations of things to do.
Join a sports team.
I mean, I can’t relate lol. Sports suck. But if that’s your jam, then have at it. Your local community centre or city hall should have flyers about teams and clubs you can join.
Take up a hobby.
Painting, calligraphy, yoga, taiko drumming, D&D…there’s going to be something for you to sink your teeth into. Even if you only go once or twice, you never know who you might meet!
Join a language exchange.
A language exchange is a regular event – usually in the same bar or cafe – that is a fairly even mix of Japanese and gaijin. There is a timer where you speak in Japanese for a certain about of time, then a bell rings and you switch to English.
If your Japanese isn’t there yet – many of the Japanese attendees will be happy to try and chat to you in English. (Just don’t let yourself be fobbed into a free lesson – that’s fairly common.)
There’s usually a small entry fee – around Y500 and includes a welcome drink.
A smile and a hello!
You’ll also end up making friends completely by chance and where you least expect it: I met of my closest friends here because we got the same bus to our schools! I was too shy for ages to say hello until a few weeks in and I worked up the courage to ask for local recommendations. A smile and hello can go a long way!
I hope this has been somewhat helpful – and if you’re living in Japan and want to share how you made friends, please leave a comment below!
First, meet Awawa – a soap bubble mascot who demonstrates proper hand-washing techniques. He’s often accompanied by an assistant who sings a happy ditty about the importance of hygiene.
Next, there’s Quaran the quarantine fairy mascot created by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
While originally just an airport mascot protecting Japan from illegal items crossing the border, Quaran’s duties have now been expanded. “I will do my best to let everyone know what a quarantine office does,” says the winged fairy on its website, brandishing it’s shield and protective goggles. D’awww.
Next, is Amabie – based on the legendary amabie creature, a mermaid-like bird figure from a Japanese folk tale with long flowing hair.
“Should an epidemic come, draw me and show me to the people,” It apparently said, before disappearing, never to be seen again. Convenient. Pictures of amabies have recently started popping up all over Japan – there’s one on every floor in my schools – which is quite charming.
And finally – and possibly my favourite – is the kawaii pink cat Koronon.
Always wearing her face mask – and often a face shield – Koronon (“no corona”) is here to protect Tokyo from the virus by promoting social distancing and handing out disposable masks in busy areas such as Shinjuku and Ikebukuro.
In a country where there is a mascot for everything from encouraging safe sex to enemas, this sort of thing was kind of inevitable.