Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Top Ten/ Goodbye Okuizumo

I'm sitting in my apartment for the last morning of my life in Okuizumo. In the past year my Japanese ability has quadrupled, I've eaten more rice than I have in the other 23 years of my life combined, and I've made some really great friends. There are many things I am glad to say goodbye to, and many things I will greatly miss. Here's a top ten Japan

Top Ten Things I am glad to say goodbye to
1. School lunches- a great quantity of food I am required to eat every day regardless of whether or not I like the menu.
2. Being stared at- sometimes it feels like I've grown a second head the way people stare.
3. San'in- a girl who lives on sunshine should not have been sent to an area known for its dreariness
4. Ceremonies- The Japanese love ceremonies like crazy. Most of the time while they're occuring I'm plotting an escape route
5. Lonelines- Being in foreign country combined with one of the highest eldelry populations in Japan is not conducive to a swinging Friday night
6. Language barrier- anytime I have to do anything it requires a great deal of brainpower. Everyday tasks like buying laundry detergent or ordering food is a lot more difficult when you can only understand half of what's going on
7. Boredom- They don't work me very hard at the schools, which I suppose most people wouldn't complain about. But I'm a girl of action, and sitting at a desk all day makes me want to chew my leg off.
8. Expense- Even out here in the inaka everything is a lot more expensive than America. In the future when I am charged 8.50 for a movie ticket I will cry with joy.
9. Body issues-most Japanese are naturally thin, so their clothing is meant to accentuate a flat body type. This makes clothes shopping around here enough to warrant a therapy session.
10. Sun- Japan isn't known as "the land of the rising sun" for no reason. Even in the winter the sun rises crazy early here, and in summer as early as 4 AM. Even on cloudy days the sunrise is so bright it usually wakes me up. And in turn it sets really early- in winter before 5 PM. Now that's a downer.

Top ten things I will miss (besides the people)
1. Kaitensushi- God, I love that stuff
2. Safety- I never lock my doors. If Iwere to put my purse by the side of the road someone would probably stand guard at it for me. Vending machines and bicycles stand proudly in public places without fear of vandalism. The Japanese communal society means that idiots generally don't mess up things just for the hell of it, as Americans are so prone to do.
3. Cheap, delicious fish- Indiana is somewhat lacking in the fresh seafood department
4.Landscape- Okuizumo is quite beautiful, with its grand mountains and rice fields as far as the eye can see
5. Customer service- People who work public service jobs here are great. They actually want to make sure you get what you want. Who would have thought?
6. Being a celebrity to the kids- Although being recognized immediately by everyone in town has its downside, the kids here really seem to like me. Wherever I go I hear shouts of
"It's Natalie-sensei!" and get hugs and high-fives
7. Cash moneys- I have a good job that pays well. I can buy the things that I want and even pay off my student loan. Pretty sweet.
8. Universal Health Care- Japan already has implemented the health care system so many Americans are fighting so hard against, and I love it. Once I got sick and had to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night. How much did it cost me? $30. I went to the dentist and took care of many cavities. The bill? $16. I know money comes out of my paycheck each month not only for my expenses but for those less fortunate than me but you know what? I'm ok with that.
9. Learning- I learn new things here every day, whether it be some sort of grammar point or sometime about farming or the seasons. For example, did you know rice plants have flowers? They only bloom for about 3 days. Who knew.
10. Adventure- Every day is an adventure, and I've had the opportunity to do so many interesting things. Although living abroad can be really stressful and draining, it also opens up so many opportunities and makes us grow a lot.

I'm so thankful for this year of adventures, and a little sad that it's over. But I know that there are many more exciting things to come.

Hello, next challenge!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Getting all I can out of it

July is my final month in Japan, and I've been doing my darnedest to get all I can out of my last days here. Here's a recap of the best of the past two months


After a three day English Camp known as CHESS (which was fun but thoroughly exhausting) I made a farewell trip to the fabulous Lexi and western Shimane. The first night we went to a Firefly Festival in Gotsu. It was a fun night, although my legs were ravaged by mosquitos in unmentionable places.

The next day we went to Tsuwano, known as the Little Kyoto of the Sannin Region. It was a beautiful little town, complete with a super cool Fox Shrine and plenty of cute little touristy shops and gifts. The path to the shrine is a mountain ascent lined with hundreds of red Torii, those sweet gates Lexi is posing with. This is probably my new favorite shrine.

I bravely tried some wasabi flavored soft serve, which turned out to be an extremely poor choice. At first I kind of liked it, although it was REALLY spicy, but my stomach hated me very soon after. We remedied the situation by eating some handmade yuzu sherbet- yuzu being a delicious fruit somewhere in between a lemon and a lime.

I spent the weekend of the fourth of July visiting my host family in Hiroshima one last time. Although there was a decided lack of fireworks and American Patriotism, I had a wonderful time as always. We visited Hiroshima Castle, where I got to try on samurai gear and a real kimono. We also ate dinner at the Ramen shop where Sena works part time.

I'm always amazed to realize how lucky I am to have met this family. They are super cool. Host Dad has decided to change jobs, which means no more free Nori for me, but most importantly he's doing something most Japanese would never do. In Japan most of the time when you join a company it means you're in it for life, no matter how much you start to hate it. So switching jobs for him is a big d eal, and I'm really happy for him. Sena has also grown a lot. Risa always was the "English Speaker" of the family, but since joining college Sena has become really interested in English as well. Some students from Illinois University are doing a foreign exchange stint in Hiroshima, and he has made good friends with them. He's showing them around and volunteering a lot. He now will even speak to me in English a bit, and he's really good! Yay, Miyake Family!!!

I just got back from a visit to Tokyo with my little Japanese sister Megumi. As always we walked like crazy an d ate like crazy. Sounds to me like a perfect combination. The weather was, to coin a phrase, sweating balls. The rainy season is finally over and has been replaced by pure heat. It was about 35 degrees Celsius during the day. Phew!

Some of the highlights of this trip were going to the Tokyo Sky Tower which will soon be the tallest building in the world for at least a couple of weeks. (Take that, Dubai). I hope
Tokyo tower doesn't feel too jealous.

We also went to Kamakura to visit 大仏 the Great Buddha. Actually, the first day we went we had too much fun walking around, eating, and looking at souvenirs so we arrived at Buddha after it closed. I came back another day though, and this time succeeded. Kamakura's Buddha is actually the second largest in the world. The biggest one is in Nara and actually has its own building. But you can climb inside Kamakura's buddha and see the inner structure. It was pretty sweet.

We went to a 花火大会 Fireworks show in Yokohama. It was ridiculously crowded. Making our way through throngs of yukata-clad Japanese we fought for some traditional festival food like takoyaki and yakisoba. It was fun, but made me claustrophobic. Maybe I really am a country girl at heart.

Having people like Megumi in my life helps me remember that there really is something bigger going on here. And trips like these help me remember why I love Japan so much in the first place.

One week to go, and counting.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


On one note- in America it's Independence Day. In Japan it's just the fourth day in July. In Japanese, Independence Day is called 独立記念日which is kind of a difficult word for me so I just say "America's Birthday" which everyone pretty much understands. Besides, when I say Independence Day most Japanese think of the sweet action flick starring Will Smith, which is not entirely historically accurate.

On another note, I realized that although I have blogged faithfully about many interesting places and adventures in Japan, I really haven't said so much about my town, Okuizumo. So here we go.

Okuizumo was only actually formally established about ten years ago. At that time it was two seperate towns, Nita and Yokota. Actually even before THAT Nita and Yokota were a bunch of seperate towns too. So, there you go. Okuizumo is located in Shimane Prefecture, Japan's second least populated prefecture, second only to our neigboring Tottori. I'm from Indiana, which isn't considered a particularly large state by American standards. But Indiana's land mass is actually 14X the size of Shimane. Are we getting a clearer picture of "countryside" now?

The town is famous for three things- Nitamai (rice) Nitagyu (beef) and Tatara (steel). And finally I've found out why those things have come to be so prosperous here. Rice and beef go hand in hand. Big, healthy cows poop a lot and make excellent fertilizer for the rice, chock full of nutrients. Also, the clean water running down from the mountains provides a lot of fresh spring water full of minerals which is great for cows and rice plants alike. The water also has tiny granules of iron known as iron sand, which is perfect for making fabulous steel. So thanks, mountains.This is my house as seen from Google maps. I live in a section of Nita known as Ai. It's a pretty rural community, tucked away in the mountains. As you can see if you walk outside my aparment all you can see pretty much are rice fields and hills. It's very beautiful.

And here is my apartment. My apartment complex is full of students from the local community college. Before last April it was super quiet, but the new freshmen who have moved in now occasionally have parties it seems. And I think my upstairs neighbor has an illegal cat, as I hear it howling some nights. Japan car is the cute blue on in the middle. We have a parking lot out back, but I'm just too lazy to park behind.

This is Ai Shokuhin Center, which literally translates to Ai Food Goods Center. It's a tiny grocery store that's just a two minute walk from my apartment. I can buy most of my daily food goods here, from tofu to soy sauce to sake. Yum. The staff here are very friendly and I see a lot of parents from my schools and sometimes kids from Ai Elementary.

But if I want anything fancy like paper towels or cinnamon I have to go to Thanks. For those of you who read katakana you will know they write it as "Sankusu" and the locals pronounce it as such. Sigh... It's in Minari, about 10 minutes drive for my house, and is like a big, ghetto K-Mart.

Minari is like the downtown of Nita, and as such has many important places. Although each little section of Nita has its own post office, including Ai, they are mostly useless as they are closed most of the time. So I usually go to the Minari branch. I have nothing but good things to say about the postal system in Japan. Postal workers are kind and polite and helpful. When I bring packages in they will give me bubble wrap, extra boxes, and help me box everything nicely. They suggest for me the cheapest shipping methods and also tell me when it will arrive. Also, I still can get mail on Sundays. There's nothing like hearing the doorbell at 7 o'clock on a Sunday night and opening the door to a friendly postman with a package for me. Plus, the postman here ride cute red motorbikes. Beat that.

Also in Minari is my bank. I have nothing but bad things to say about my bank. It's called the Sannin Godo Ginko, and although I know Sannin means the region of Japan where I'm living and Ginkou means bank, I have no idea what Godo means. And quite frankly I don't care. The office hours of this bank are from 9 am to 3 pm every weekday, not open on weekends. Yup, that's right. Smack in the middle of my work hours. And in Japan, even the ATM's have operating hours. This ATM is only open until 7, like everything in Okuizumo, and will charge you a fee if you use it from 3-7 pm. I can only withdraw money from a Sannin-godo ATM and this branch is only located in this area. So when I travel I have to withdraw a bunch of money and pray. Also, there is no online banking and the savings accounts do not accrue interest. Really, I may as well keep my money under my mattress.

All complaints aside, Okuizumo is really a very lovely town with lots kind people. Check this river behind my apartment where many locals go fishing. As I'm nearing the end of my stay, I'm starting to get a little sad to leave this place with so much beauty and history. It's been an up and down ride, but all in all I'm very glad I came.

And Hey! I'm not quite done yet.