Teaching is hard: Failing and learning

I think teaching might be one of the hardest things in the world. I always took my teachers for granted until I started teaching full time and realized just how much work it takes outside of class to have a successful class.

I had a bad lesson at my second school last week. It was the first time teaching that lesson plan, so it was pretty rocky and the team teaching dynamic was not up to par. Afterward, I complained that students didn’t listen to me, that they kept talking while I was trying to give directions. (Which caused me to give up on explaining in English and tried to have the JTE–Japanese English teacher regain control over the class by explaining in Japanese.)

While I was venting my frustration about the students’ behavior, my brain at the same time was going “You know it’s your fault too.” Although the class was unforgiving of our rocky team teaching, I knew I didn’t give good directions and I didn’t give off that prepared teacher aura that makes students pay attention.

During our free period, I talked with my JTE and asked him to stop the students from talking when I talked, and he gave me some suggestions about the worksheets and to write the plan on the board to have a better organized class.

The next two classes went much more smoothly. They seemed to have fun practicing pronunciation and playing the game at the end.

It was a good reminder that if a class doesn’t go well, you can’t automatically assume it’s because of the students. It’s our responsibility as teachers to continuously evaluate our lesson plans, directions, & classroom management and MAKE IT WORK. Ganbarō!

Japan Scrapblog {9} A weekend of men

Tsukemen, actually.

One with my favorite, and one with a coworker. 

  

The first: I walked to the ramen place nearest the local station after school, starving. I’ve been working late, trying to stay afloat / ahead of the game / more metaphors about keeping it together*. Met him there and had my first tsukemen (dipping ramen noodles). It was good. Lessened the too-salty effect that ramen often has.

  

The second: I was personally invited to watch my high school’s basketball game at the district level so I went. Both the girls’ and boys’ teams made it to the prefectural level, yay! But my main school happened to be playing my second school, which I realized after I got there, and my main school killed my second school (over double the score), so Thursday will be interesting.

And even though I did absolutely nothing, the basketball teacher insisted on calling me an assistant coach and giving me matcha chocolate afterward to thank me for coming. 

After the girls’ game, I went to what turned out to basically be a sanshin private lesson, learned a couple new songs, and got music for a couple that are way too difficult/fast but I’ll try to learn.

Then I got dinner with a coworker (a Japanese English teacher). Since I said I wanted to eat something Japanese, she suggested ramen. And then I had tsukemen for the second day in a row. It even came with a bunch of veggies so I was happy with my men choices.

*I have a love-hate relationship with being really busy. In contrast to the overwhelming bleh feeling I have during breaks, I feel like I’m overall being really productive and getting stuff done, which makes me happy. But having an extra five classes per week this school year (which started at the beginning of April) forces me to think and plan for 2-3 days ahead.

It’s a bit mentally exhausting, re-evaluating priorities and always juggling lesson plans and materials in my head. In college, when I was insane and took 19 credits (max of 18) one semester, I had this post-it note system: I had a Monday through Friday board. Every assignment/test was written on a post-it note and posted 4 days before it was due. I had to work on it little by little during the 2-3 day period (with a 1 day procrastinate buffer).

Anyway, I might need to make that board, so I can stay organized a little easier. So far, I’m staying on top of everything and getting stuff to my co-teachers early enough that they can make suggestions, provide input, etc. which makes my lessons better. Hopefully that’ll continue! But it just occurred to me: only 12 more lessons to plan before I leave the school & country, crazy!

Japan Scrapblog {8} Farewell party

I didn’t attend the farewell/welcome party last year so I made sure to go this year. 

Sitting on the specially chartered shuttle bus from school to downtown Chiba, I caught up with another English teacher I used to see/talk with all the time.

  

The party was held at a fancy hotel and the food was a strange mix of Japanese and ambiguously Western food. Honestly it wasn’t very good and unfortunately not worth the exorbitant price.

Japan public schools have this system of constantly rotating teachers. While in the U.S., teachers might stay at the same school for their entire (or majority of) their career, Japanese teachers might only stay at one school for a minimum of 3 or 5 years and 10 years at most. This creates a huge “teacher shuffle” every April, the beginning of a new school year.

The teachers moving to another school were introduced, and then the new teachers. Speeches were made while dinner was served.

In between the lull, teachers mingled. Now familiar with the Japanese custom of constantly refilling others’ glasses (as a respect/bonding thing), I entered the fray armed with Sapporo beer and made the rounds. 

One JTE likes to talk about great I am to other teachers, in a proud fatherly way. I smile and say “no, no, no” in the Japanese of deferring compliments.

  

Afterward we head to the nijikai or second party. They squeeze thirty teachers into a karaoke room. I have to sit seiza and kneel perched on my feet. 

Soon the ankle that never fully recovered from the sprain last summer starts to hurt and I move to lean against the wall. I chill with the principal. He eventually sings a song in English and I’m surprised he knows the lyrics well and his pronunciation is not half bad.

I go home smelling of smoke and feeling drunk without ever having a drop of alcohol.

Japan Scrapblog {7} Rainy Sunday pearls

“After all,” Anne had said to Marilla once, “I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.”

— L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

 

On a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon, after waking up well-rested to no alarm, we learned to play koi koi with my hanafuda cards that I found at the 100 yen store. Inspired by Summer Wars (an amazing movie), I’ve been practicing online and finally had the chance to try it out without computer assistance. (Excluding Google, of course. The rules are a bit complicated.)

We also did a lot of cooking. We had strawberry crepes, leftover mapo dofu from the night before, and eggplant spinach spaghetti. I made French onion soup with quinoa to bring for lunch the next day.

With the help of the furoshiki book (a present from a JTE that moved to another school), I managed to make my lunch look really cute.

I even did some vacuuming and after getting all my stuff ready and taking a shower, I was ready for Monday and the new school year!

Japan Scrapblog {6} Inner child

Finally made it to Showa no Mori, the largest park in Chiba city, a second time without getting lost.

Luckily the rain seemed to be staying away today, so after a group Skype and pancakes, we made our way in search of more sakura (cherry blossoms).

This park has the best slide — better than Disney in my opinion. Free, a very short line, and extremely fun. I would definitely recommend coming to Toke to experience this magical slide.

We also played popcorn on the other playground equipment. Imagine one person curled into a ball (resembling popcorn) and the other jumping up and down on trampoline-like material (simulating the microwave heating). So much fun both in my kindergarten gymnastics class and today.

Everything was lovely, despite the gray and chilly weather. I laid under the cherry blossoms and thought about that TFIOS quote about branches being blown together and apart and how intersecting lines only meet at one point.

I wonder how many people I’ve met in Japan will merely be singular points of intersection. Probably more than I’d like.

Japan Scrapblog {5} Spring break regret

Spring break means going out for lunch with my coworkers (yay lovely ratatouille right across from the school).

  

But it also means alternating between feeling like I’m missing sakura spring sun by being cooped indoors

 

 

and feeling guilty that I’m not getting more work done for the new school year about to start (Future Me always thinks, if only Past Me planned farther ahead)

and feeling guilty about feeling guilty and etc.

  

Breaks always seem to end with “why didn’t I use this time better” and could’ve’s & should’ve’s. I have break regret and pre-end-of-break anticipation. It’s classic back-to-school problems, except replace homework with lesson planning.

Japan Scrapblog {4} Chasing cherry blossoms

Realizing the rain might wash away the cherry blossoms before this weekend, I went for a walk around my neighborhood.

I found an owl cafe — not sure if it’s just a cafe with the name “Owl” or if it actually has live owls.

I found sakura, the prettiest harbinger of spring. I am totally understanding Japan’s obsession with these gorgeous ephemeral gifts.

I found a lovely pond behind the nearby park. It only took me two years to find this pond. I’d never ventured beyond the wide open space.

As I walked away from the setting sun, I started missing my life in Japan — all the happy moments and the people I shared them with.

And I felt a bit sad about all the things I might never discover just beyond.

Japan Scrapblog {3} Artifacts, part 2

I threw away this baby.

The newest addition to my household! Bets on how long before it dies? #mythumbsarentgreen #serialkiller

A photo posted by Rachel S. Wang (@rachel_s_wang) on

   

Shortly after I moved here, I thought that if I filled the apartment with things, my things, it’d become my home more quickly. 

At one point, I bought this plant from a flower shop near the train station.

It kept me company for a long time. A lot longer than any other plant I’ve unwittingly killed — and there have been many. 

But it’s time to stop the hopeful every-once-in-a-while watering.

Thanks, plant.

Top 5 Japan Travel Tips (& Japanese Culture Info)

If you’re visiting me in Japan before I leave, here are things I think you should know about traveling in Japan & Japanese culture. Based on having friends stay with me last year, I think these were the biggest things that came up.

Inspired by my friend Victoria’s blog post with great packing and travel advice HERE. And also by the fact that I’m at school during spring break, and I need a break from all the spring cleaning. If you have additional advice or tips, let me know what I forgot. Hope this helps!

JAPAN TRAVEL TIPS

1. Look into buying a Japan Rail Pass if you plan to travel between cities. If you want to take the bullet train anywhere, it’ll probably be worth it. You have to reserve this well in advance.

2. Rent pocket wifi from the airport when you arrive for around $10-12 per day and maybe some amount for the device. You’ll need to show your passport. You can also reserve it in advance.

  • Free wifi is extremely rare and difficult to find. Narita airport does have free wifi!

3. Bring a TON of cash. Don’t rely on credit/debit cards. Japan is a ALL CASH ALL THE TIME society. ATMs are pretty difficult to find.

  • Exchange most of your money at the airport (or else be prepared to do a lot of searching). I have no idea where else to exchange your money.
  • EDIT: A friend says, “In the past I’ve exchanged money at designated exchange places/big banks in Tokyo so it is possible outside of the airport! I think it was somewhere a lot of tourists go, like Akiba or Shinjuku. There are definitely resources for finding currency exchanges online somewhere!”

4. Get a Suica or Pasmo card (prepaid train fare card) when you arrive. Saves you the trouble of buying tickets every time. You can get the ¥500 ($5) deposit back if you return it to certain stations. You can use the card for train, subway, buses, and many vending machines.

  • Best apps for public transportation: Google Maps & Hyperdia (English), Norikae Annai (if you can read kanji). I personally use a combo of Google Maps and Norikae Annai on a daily basis. When using the bullet train to travel between cities, I use Hyperdia.

5. Book a hostel with hostelworld.com or booking.com. I usually stay in a hostel when I travel and find them to be clean, have English-speaking staff, and provide basic toiletries (shampoo, hair dryer, etc. BUT NO TOWELS).

  • You can look for a “guesthouse” if you want to try Japanese-style accommodations (tatami room, futon bedding, etc.) I stayed in a really cool Japanese guesthouse in Nara with a great international atmosphere.

JAPANESE CULTURE TIPS

On the train

  • No phone calls (phones are supposed to be on silent “manner mode”).
  • Talk quietly. Japanese trains can be some of the quietest places — think library. So try not to take up a lot of space or be obnoxious.
  • You’re also not supposed to eat in public on the train, while walking, etc. but I break this rule constantly because I’m a slave to my stomach.


At restaurants

  • The wet napkin thing is supposed to be used before the meal to clean your hands.
  • To call the waiter, you can yell “sumimasen.” Some places might have a call button on the table.
  • You pay at the cash register when you’re ready to leave. Just bring the bill up. You can usually pay separately by saying “betsu betsu” (べつべつでお願いします betsu betsu de onegaishimasu).
  • Japanese people are mystified by the whole drinking plain hot water thing. But you can get it for free if you ask!

Out and about

  • When in doubt, do the guy nod (which passes for a casual bow), or say “sumimasen” (excuse me/sorry/thank you).
  • Be prepared to carry your trash around. Usually the only public trash cans are at train stations. Try not to dump food things in random trash cans in bathrooms unless you’re desperate.
  • Trash at stations is usually separated into PET bottles, cans, newspaper, combustible/other (most trash),
  • People are generally extremely nice so if you get lost/need help, train staff & police people are great, but don’t expect a lot of English speaking ability. Practice your pantomiming and/or learn some basic Japanese words to get by in Japan.


At any Japanese-style accommodations
(e.g. my apartment)

  • You take a shower OUTSIDE of the bathtub.
  • You might have to press a button on the wall for there to be hot water.
  • Get used to futon sleeping if you’re staying at a Japanese-style place. A Japanese futon means a mattress pad-like thing on the ground. Think somewhere between a sleeping bag & an air mattress amount of comfort.
  • Be very careful not to spill anything on tatami (straw/grass) floors. It’s very high maintenance and can grow mold, tiny bugs, etc.

Japan Scrapblog {2} Artifacts, part 1

The goal is twofold: 1) remembering, and 2) disposing.

I started with my desk area at school today. Too many papers and too few magnets (mainly of Wisconsin) on the metal cabinet behind me.

I threw away three things of importance.

Artifact 1: A snowflake I made as an example for an English Club activity.

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Artifact 2: A note from a third-year student (now graduated sadly).


Artifact 3: A return Christmas card from my principal.

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#DearMe: A Letter to My Past Self, or Everything Will Be Okay

Dear me,

How you do on academic measures of success is not the ruler by which you should measure your life.

In junior year of college, your sky-high expectations will crash as you will finally realize that you don’t need to be a Fulbright scholar or graduate with comprehensive honors or go into academia, to bring value to the world. You don’t have to leave some lasting impact on the world to have lived a life worth living.

Stop comparing. Stop living under pressure. Stop worrying about the future. It’s okay. It’ll work out. And if it doesn’t, IT’LL STILL BE OKAY. I know it’ll take you a ridiculously long time to realize this, so hurry up and get there!

Make scary decisions. Don’t just do what everyone else is doing because that’s the thing to do. Or because “how else will you make money.”

If you’re worried about the future, hint: it’ll be okay! You’ll fail. You’ll fall. You’ll break (sprain) your ankle and your heart, on separate occasions. But it’ll still be okay. You will still have people you love and people who love you and books to comfort you when people fail you. Everything will be okay even if it doesn’t go as planned. Learn to be flexible with the plan. Embrace the uncertainty and random twists and turns of life.

And even though you’re in the midst of figuring out how to embrace the uncertainty, I’m already so proud of you.

  • For following your interests — from taking the classes you wanted to discovering new passions and holding on to them — even when they take you 6,000 miles away from home.
  • For learning to speak up. You’ve come so far from being that super shy kid — Don’t worry because you’ll learn how to get over that. You’ll even do public speaking as an extracurricular in high school. And eventually you’ll do it for a living as a teacher.
  • For meeting other people who like the things you like by getting involved.
  • For moving far away to a country where you don’t know the language, which will be the scariest and best decision you’ve ever made.

Thank you for struggling and learning and dreaming.

Love,
Me

Context:

Japan Scrapblog {1} Graduation Songs

I’m leaving Japan soon — in all likelihood in August (with my contract ending in five short months exactly today). And I’m not a scrapbooker. The closest thing I come to documenting my life is Instagram. So now I need to up my blogging game if I’m going to remember all these little moments. Those little moments of nothing special that make up a happy life. Here we go, scrapbook post #1.

Today I attended the graduation ceremony at the high school I teach at, which probably explains my reflective mood. Last year, I wrote about my first experience at a Japanese high school graduation ceremony and what surprised me here. This year is an addendum, focusing on the songs.

While we have Pomp & Circumstance and the helpfully labelled “Graduation Song” by Vitamin C, this is what we sang today.

  • Japanese national anthem “Kimigayo” (which is only ONE verse, a nice change from the I-can’t-remember-your-lyrics-beyond-the-first-three-lines “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and apparently it’s also “known to be the ‘most controversial’ anthem of the world” according to Wikipedia.)

  • Hotaru no Hikari (the light of the fireflies) — sang by only teachers & 1st/2nd year students to the graduating 3rd years

Surprisingly, it’s set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne but with completely different words. Actually I really like the poetic imagery of the Japanese version — check out the English translation (thanks Wikipedia).

Light of fireflies, snow by the window,
Many suns and moons spent reading
Years have gone by without notice
Day has dawned; this morning, we part.

Stay or leave, either an end
Think as mementos; so many
Corners of my heart, in one word
Sing for peace

And we didn’t sing this but here’s another popular song sung at graduation.

And of course, the food. Teachers get a bento (box lunch) on special days like today. Today we had this and celebratory kouhaku (紅白) manju (red and white buns filled with red bean).

I was really surprised to receive gifts from two graduating students.

flowers
I helped this student practice English for her university interview and she passed!
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From the second student, this is a bath bomb as omiyage (souvenir) from a hot spring she visited.

If you read this to the end: what kind of music was used at your graduation ceremony? Any school level, any country — I’d love to hear!

Top 5 Things to Do in Kujukuri

Although Kujukuri seems pretty inaka (rural), there are actually some pretty fun things to do there! Here are my favorite five. No, they aren’t ALL eating.

Kujukuri (九十九里町 kujūkuri-machi) is a town on the east coast of Chiba prefecture. It lies on Kujukuri beach, which is apparently the second longest beach in Japan (thanks, Wikipedia!).

  

1. THE FIRST SUNRISE OF THE YEAR

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Hatsuhinode (初日の出) is a New Year’s custom, where you watch the first sunrise of the year.  Chiba prefecture has two prime spots: Kujukuri and Choshi. Choshi is too far for me at 5am so I got to experience hatsuhinode at Kujukuri.

I was surprised to see a festival-like atmosphere at 6am. There were lots of food stalls selling warm drinks and soup. I had some insider info on free tonjiru (pork soup), so I warmed up with a bowl of that while huddling around a bonfire. The giant kagami mochi was really cool, there were some dragon dance and taiko drum performances, and I even met the town’s mascot Kukurin.

あけましておめでとうございます!今年も4649 笑 Happy new year!

A photo posted by Rachel S. Wang (@rachel_s_wang) on

   

2. MAKE GLASS @ SUGAHARA
 
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 I wasn’t that interested in buying something here (everything is gorgeous but pretty expensive), but the chance to make something out of glass with the help of a professional was a ton of fun.
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 As an Chiba-kun ambassador, I did the rolling class option and made a glass dish in the shape of a fish. We got to choose the type (fish dish, mug, basket, bowl, etc.), color, and stamp if we wanted to.
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 It comes out looking like a giant ball of fire then you shape the fire pancake into whatever shape.
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 This glass fish almost leapt right out of my hands after I pulled out the rod used to create an indent for the eye. I would love to try glass blowing sometime, and Sugahara offers that option as well! Plus the lesson is a lot cheaper than I expected — ¥2,500-3,500 (only $25-35!).

  

3. CHECK OUT LOCAL FESTIVALS

The first one I went to was the umi biraki (海開き literally ‘sea opening’), a ceremony held to open the beaches and offer prayers for a safe season. This is held on April 29th (the Showa no hi holiday), so check it out! There are performances and my favorite part, a treasure hunt (like an Easter egg hunt but in the sand)!

Japan's version of Easter egg hunt is apparently digging through the sand for plastic tag things (宝探し takara sagashi)

A video posted by Rachel S. Wang (@rachel_s_wang) on

  
The furusato matsuri (literally ‘hometown festival’) is the first Saturday of August and features all the fun of a Japanese matsuri festival with some small town charm. All of Kujukuri’s schools, associations, and groups are represented with their own festival float and you can see different eclectic groups parading around. There’s also some pretty great fireworks!

Found Totoro at the Kujukuri Furusato Festival!

A photo posted by Rachel S. Wang (@rachel_s_wang) on

 

Walking home from the Furusato Festival. #vscocam #japan

A photo posted by Rachel S. Wang (@rachel_s_wang) on

  
Other local festivals are listed on Kujukuri’s tourism site HERE.

  
4. EAT IWASHI
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 Kujukuri is known for its iwashi (sardine) industry. So you can’t visit without trying the delicious tiny fish!

I’ve been to two restaurants and I recommend both! Nacho took me to Dairin on one of my first visits, and the Chiba-kun ambassador tour took us to Maruni, which had a great view of the beach!

There’s even an iwashi festival coming up on March 8th (details here).

  

5. COOL PAINTINGS @ MOCHIZUKI SADAKO MUSEUM

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Funny story: The website is mochi-museum.com so I was under the impression that we were going to be learning about the history of mochi. I even asked one of the Chiba-kun ambassador people “Are we going to eat mochi?” at lunch. She was really confused. When we walk in the museum, I see all these paintings on the wall and as I walk around, it finally dawns on me. Turns out Mochizuki Sadako is a person. (No relation to mochi.)

Anyway so you can see some impressionist style art painted by Sadako Mochizuki who is from Kujukuri. You might also meet an adorable toy poodle named Cookie. Not to be confused with the delicious homemade cookies and tea in the cute cafe on the first floor. Do not eat the dog.


  
Getting to Kujukuri
Kujukuri doesn’t have a train station, so you’ll have to take the train to JR Tōgane (東金) station. Then take the bus bound for Katagai (片貝). To get to the beach, get off at Katagai station (the last stop).

Let’s ichigo strawberry picking!

What could be better than all-you-can-shove-in-your-mouth strawberries for 40 min? PUKING STRAWBERRIES. Tastes even better the second time / on the way up.*

*I cannot verify this with personal anecdotes. YET.

First stop on the last Chiba-kun ambassador tour was strawberry picking in Naruto! I was really excited about this as it was my first time picking strawberries (at least as far as I can remember).

We visited a place called Koyama Farm. There were three greenhouses with rows and rows of strawberries of 6 different kinds. My favorite was called “akihime” which is originally from Shizuoka.

I forgot my DSLR on the bus. Too preoccupied with eating and all that to go back and get it. So here are some lovely pictures by Mr. Ishikawa.

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Pictures? Smiling? AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT. This is serious business.

We can smile when we’ve eaten at least 20 strawberries and a partially moldy one.

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I touched a butt!

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Strawberry road should be the name of a Mario Kart course. Instead of mushrooms and bananas, there can be strawberries and moldy strawberries.

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If you want to go, click HERE for a map of the many strawberry picking places in Naruto.

Koyama Farm (小山ファーム)
http://koyama-farm.jp/ (Japanese only)
Access: 1) 3.5 miles from JR Naruto Station, 2) By car, drive 6 miles on the Sanmu Naruto IC
Address: 〒289-1314 山武市下横地1912
TEL: 0475-84-0708
Hours: Jan-May 10am-3pm

Making Futomaki: Chiba’s Fat Sushi

What’s better than sushi? FAT sushi.

When you picture sushi, you might think of California rolls with the rice on the outside. Other sushi types include nigiri (shaped rice with fish on top) and maki (or roll), but with the rice on the inside.1

Chiba prefecture has its own special type of sushi. One of its local specialties is futomaki (literally ‘fat sushi roll’) traditionally made by northern farmers in Chiba. Makers of futomaki pride themselves on creating intricate designs. We Chiba-kun ambassadors had the chance to experience putting a futomaki roll together without having to prepare the ingredients beforehand.

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We’re so happy to have all the ingredients and materials nicely laid out for all of us!

First some professional futomaki chefs demonstrated how to make delicious rolls of joy.

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I chose to do the rose design because I was on crutches and the rose table was the closest to my crippled self. Ingredients of the rose design: egg sheet, pink rice, sliced red pepper, pickled nozowana (a leafy vegetable, you can substitute cucumber or string beans), nori (seaweed), a small and large bamboo mat2

chiba-kun-ambassador-futomaki3It was actually a lot easier than I expected. The entire rose design is created by just scattering pink rice and red pepper slices onto two egg sheets. Then you layer one inside of the other. That’s it!

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The other group made peach blossoms, which was slightly harder. They had to make five rolls of pink and white rice first before rolling it all together with a cheese stick in the middle.

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Then the pros showed off their amazing skills and created these beauties right in front of us.

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Then we got to enjoy a nice meal together!chiba-kun-ambassador-futomaki5

If you’re interested in learning how to make the rose futomaki, you should check out this video here. There’s also a great recipe book called “The Art of Making Futomaki Matsuri Sushi” by Eiko Ryuzaki written in English and Japanese. And here’s a hometown connection: In 1993, the writer was part of a delegation that traveled to Chiba’s sister state Wisconsin, and she taught Wisconsinites how to make futomaki!

 

1. Apparently California rolls were first made with rice on the outside to hide the nori (seaweed) because people were weirded out by the thought of eating seaweed. This makes me think of when the other kids in elementary school freaked out because I had brought dried seaweed as part of my lunch.

2. I was told that no, you do not eat the bamboo mat unless you are a sushi-rolling panda.

Happy One Year Japaniversary!

Happy one year to me and Japan! If you don’t know already, yes I’m staying for another year. It took a bit but Japan (and this post-graduation life) really feels like home.

One year ago today1, I managed to not miss any flights2 and arrive at Narita airport safe and sound3. My goal at that time was to not get lost and die. While I may have one less functional leg4 than when I arrived, so far so good on that goal5. Really that goal was because I had zero idea what to expect when moving to a new country where you know .0001% of the language. Because I tend to like having a general idea of what to expect, I decided to think as little as possible about my move.

Things I wish I had known include: everything will be okay6. Your teachers will be super helpful in making sure you can survive. You will make friends eventually. You will make more at a full-time job than your 4 little part-time things7 in college. The Chiba-Wisconsin ALT program is full of supportive and lovely people8. You will live in a nice apartment and location. You will suck at teaching low-level English learners but you’ll get better.

Thanks for indulging my reflective nostalgia.


1. Insert clichés about time.
2. Took a nap at the gate of a connecting flight before. Alarm didn’t wake me. Moral: don’t pull an all-nighter packing for your flight. Even an hour of sleep is better than none.
3. Pause while you listen to that catchy song and dance around in your seat.
4. I sprained my ankle and am on week 2 of three weeks of doctor-prescribed crutching around.
5. Always doubtful when maneuvering the next flight of stairs.
6. Except for the two weeks of not eating because of stomach flu and the sprained ankle.
7. Study skills advising, tutoring, and two Psychology labs.
8. For the most part. Just kidding. They’re all great.

Visiting Katori: The Venice of Chiba [Part 2]

My favorite part of the Chiba-kun ambassador tour revolved around the water: exploring the city’s canals by boat and walking the historic streets along the canal. (If you don’t know me, I’m kind of obsessed with water. I’d like to think this reflects my thirst for life.) This is one of the coolest historic places in Chiba prefecture, so you need to come and visit this Japanese Venice!

The twelve bridges of Kato-zu boat tour

Right next to the Suigo Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden was a little pier with boats. This kind of flat-bottomed boat is called a “sappa-bune.” This is where we started our boat tour of the city.

sappa-bune-japanese-boat

These boats are steered by women who skillfully maneuver with only a pole in the water to push us forward. I’m really jealous of this arm strength, especially now that I’m on crutches and lacking in that department. They do this wearing a hat made of sedge leaves and Monpe pants, a type of Japanese work clothing.

sawara-boat-tour-woman

As advertised, there are 12 bridges. These bridges were built for people living along the canal to easily access other parts of the town. It was a nice glimpse into Japanese daily life as I imagined living next to a canal.

junikyo-bridge-katori-sawara canal-hydrangea-flower

Somehow, Chiba-kun got away from me and started trying on parts of the boat woman’s uniform.

chiba-kun-hat chiba-kun-boots

 

“Little Edo” Sawara Historic Merchant Town

Sawara is known as “Little Edo” because of the historic merchant district along the Onogawa river that hasn’t changed much since the Edo period. Sawara used to exist as a separate city until it was merged with other nearby towns to form Katori city, so don’t be confused like I was by all the Sawara this, Sawara that. We’re still in Katori city.

sawara-onogawa-historic-district

This lovely district is the only one in Chiba to be officially recognized by the Japanese government as an area of historic preservation. This designation mandates protection and preservation of the district’s cultural significance.

What I love about visiting other countries is the sense of history you can feel just by walking down the street. If countries were people, the US would be a crawling toddler. So walking around the streets of a place built in the 1500s with stores 100-200 years old was inspiring.

sawara-little-edo

I wish I had time to go into all of the stores. I found one selling these red bean sweets (monaka) as omiyage (souvenirs) for my coworkers, and another one that had this really cool Japanese monsters hand towel. We also stopped by a store that had a guy carving crazy expensive wooden ear picks in the store window.

sawara-onogawa-canal
Look how pretty everything is! Plus you can also take a boat tour from here.

Below is the Toyohashi bridge that does the waterfall thing every 30 minutes. It’s known as the “ja ja” bridge because “ja ja” is a Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of running water. Maybe kind of like “whoooosh whoooosh” bridge in English.

waterfall-bridge-sawara-katori

One of Katori’s most famous citizens is Inoh Tadataka, a man who walked all over Japan to create the first map of Japan using modern surveying techniques. Talk about badass.

Ino-tadataka-sawara-katori
Picture by katorisi. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The house where Inoh Tadataka lived is designated as a National Historic Site and conveniently located along the same Onogawa canal. All the maps, drawings, documents, and tools he left behind are actual National Treasures and are housed in the Inoh Tadataka Memorial Museum. Unfortunately his house was under construction, and I didn’t have enough time to visit the museum. Guess that means I’ll have to go back sometime!

Overall, I loved the historic feel of the merchant district and the canals. This area isn’t too far from the Narita Airport, so it’s a great place to spend a day!

 

Details:

The twelve bridges of Kato-zu boat tour (水郷佐原十二橋船めぐり)

-Access: The boat tour starts from the pier at Lake Yoda Ura, right next to the Suigo Aquatic Botanical Garden.

  • By train, get off at JR Sawara station (Narita line) and take the Kan-Tetsu sightseeing bus for Itako (20 min). Get off at the Aquatic Botanical garden stop and walk 5 min.
  • By car, take the Higashi Kanto Expressway, 20 min from the Sawara-Katori exit, or 25 min from the Taiei exit. Free parking available!

-Admission: 1 boat is ¥6,500 and fits up to 5 people
Website in English

Sawara Historic Merchant Town District

-Access: From the JR Sawara Station, walk 10 min to the Onogawa river.
Website in English
-Here’s a map to the Inoh Tadataka Memorial Museum, but you can clearly see the canal to the right of it. (Hint: it’s the only blue river-looking thing nearby.)

Visiting Katori: Botanical Garden [Part 1]

On our first Chiba-kun ambassador tour, we visited Katori, a city in northeastern Chiba (the forehead of Chiba-kun). It was a gorgeous place, full of many different things to see and do!

Suigo Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden

We were here for the Iris Festival. This botanical garden has 400 different types of irises, for a mind-blowing total of 1.5 million flowers. Amazingly a bunch of flowers managed to survive despite the two days of heavy rain!

This botanical garden was a lovely place to just walk around and smell the irises. Or take pictures of flowers and people — hello great portraits with a beautiful backdrop. You can also take a boat ride among the greenery.

Definitely check out the Suigo Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden for the iris festival in June or the lotus festival in July!

chiba-kun-ambassador-suigo
Chiba-kun ambassadors hail from countries like Korea, Mongolia, Costa Rica, Myanmar, Malaysia, China, USA, and more!
Above photo of irises taken by Mr. Ishikawa

cute-friends

daisies

flower

lotus

flower2

katori-sawara-boat

Chiba-kun enjoyed a lovely day among the flowers as well.

chiba-kun-hydrangea-flower chiba-kun-flower

 

Access:

  • By train, get off at JR Sawara station (Narita line) and take the Kan-Tetsu sightseeing bus for Itako (20 min). Get off at the Aquatic Botanical garden stop and walk 5 min.
  • By car, take the Higashi Kanto Expressway, 20 min from the Sawara-Katori exit, or 25 min from the Taiei exit. Free parking available!

Admission (for adults):

  • Sept-April, ¥200
  • May-Aug (except the iris festival), ¥500
  • During the iris festival in June: ¥700

Hours:

  • 9am-4:30pm with extended hours during the festivals.
  • May-Aug: Open everyday
  • Sept-April: Closed Mondays

English website and Wikipedia page

Letters to July / 22

crutches-totoro
Totoro makes a good crutch holder.

Dear July,

I am now a flamingo. Forever perched on one leg.

I was standing at the bus stop across from my friend’s hotel in Hong Kong, waiting for the one that went to the airport. When the bus arrived, I stepped off the curb and collapsed on my left ankle. It was embarrassing but I was fine.

I was coming back from Hong Kong, missed my stop, and ended up going to Togane for dinner.  There are four flights of stairs at the station. On the last step of the last flight, I collapsed on my right ankle. It hurt a lot more than things usually hurt when you fall. But I managed to make it back home. There was a lot of walking to transfer trains and then the longest walk home ever.

This morning I couldn’t use the right foot at all. It’s quite swollen but only sprained not broken. The doctor says I should use crutches for 3 weeks. Fortunately it was quite cheap to visit the hospital/clinic and get X-rays — only around $20 USD.

Simple things seem so difficult now. Today it was grocery shopping. And now I’m really afraid of somehow messing up my other leg. Also falling down stairs backwards.

Moral of the story: hurry + suitcase = bad things happen to ankles. Also that stage of youthful immortality in my life is over.

Sorry I’ve been ignoring you, July. I’ve had a busy weekend after another. Last week was spent preparing to go and going to Hong Kong. I’ll try to find time for you among the backlog of Chiba-kun ambassador posts.

Float Parade at the Narita Gion Festival

Narita Gion Festival (July 5, 2014)

This was my fourth time wandering the Omotesando street near the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple and as always, it was a great time. I loved seeing the area in such a festive mood: bustling with food stalls, game booths, and people dressed in beautiful yukatas (summer kimonos) — even adorable children!

yukata-kimono-festival yukata-kimono-cute

At the Narita Gion Festival, decorated floats called dashi (山車) are pulled down the street. By anyone and everyone, it seemed.

pulling-dashi-float dashi-parade-matsuri

Sitting on the middle layer of the float were people playing drums and flute. And there were people standing waaaaay on top.

dashi-float dashi-float2

Some of the balconies of buildings next to the street were filled with people trying to put money in the float. It was like money fishing in reverse.

matsuri-dashi-money

We also walked around the Narita san temple area, which was gorgeous as always.

narita-san-shinshoji-temple

When there’s a festival, tons of booths fill the space one level below the temple building.

matsuri-festival-narita

We got ourselves some chocolate bananas with sprinkles and hats at one of the booths! The hats are filled with sugar! Sweet!

chocolate-banana-kristen

Since we were in Narita, we had to get unagi (eel). It’s a must. Narita is known for their unagi. Their city mascot is even an unagi airplane hybrid creature.

unari-kun

I recommend going to this place called 近江屋 (Oomiya, details at the end) that my JTE and her husband took me to. I’ve been there three times now, and every time it’s delicious. Get the unajuu (鰻重 unagi on rice in traditional laquered box) or unadon (鰻丼) if you’re not feeling that hungry (one piece of unagi instead of two on rice).

unagi

After our delicious unagi dinner, it started getting dark. The dashi floats are beautiful all lit up in the night, but suddenly it was very, very difficult to move. Every time a dashi float passed by, everyone was pushed to the side. The people pulling the floats were really into it, so much so that they actually pushed me off the slim curb that I was standing on and into some pickled vegetables (thankfully, packaged).

Pulling a dashi float at the Narita Gion Festival. For the full story check out rachelallday.wordpress.com

A video posted by Rachel S. Wang (@rachel_s_wang) on

Tons of people started coming to the festival now that it was dark, and it took a very long to get back to the station. Personally, I would recommend you do as we did – explore just before it gets dark and see the dashi floats lit up on the way back to the station.

dashi-float3

Overall, I was glad I went and got to see the awesome dashi floats in action and reward myself with some delicious unagi for getting out of the house! You should definitely check out the Narita Gion Festival next time around, or the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple (Naritasan for short). Even if you’re just in Narita for a layover, it’s totally possible to get to the temple area and have some unagi!

Details

Naritasan Shinshoji Temple

  • Access: By train, JR Narita station or Keisei Narita station. Walk 15 min down Omotesando street to the temple.
  • When: Naritasan temple (English website here) is always open with free admission. The next big event is the Bon Dancing Festival on August 23-24.
  • WiFi: WiFi is available in Narita, especially at Narita Station and along the main temple road. For more info, click here.

近江屋 (Oomiya)

  • Address: 384 Nakamachi, Narita, Chiba Prefecture 286-0027
  • Open: 10AM-5PM daily
  • Phone: 0476-22-0119
  • Website here (Japanese only)

Letters to July / 10

Dear July,

You are hot. Not in a seductive way, but in a way that makes all the energy to do anything just evaporate off my skin along with the sweat. Today I came home, ate, and quickly went from very, very hungry to “Am I still hungry? Stomach/brain, communicate faster!” to very, very tired to “Hello pillow” to passed out. Waking up 2 (3?) hours later was the most disorienting experience.

Today was the first day I cooked for myself in a week. Sometimes I forget the proud joy that cooking can bring. I’m not so good at it and it’s easy to just make the same thing all the time. Routine can be boring. I guess, July, that that is your hamartia. You lull us to sleep with the warmth of habit.

 

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 9

Dear July,

Recently I’ve been nesting. When I first came, I had just spent my summer packing and unpacking and packing and unpacking, moving from 1) my college apartment to 2) an internship in Mississippi to 3) my family’s home to 4) Japan. After spending so long trying to get rid of everything but the essentials, I’ve been trying to not spend money on so many materialistic things and end the vicious cycle of accumulation.

Alas, it must be human to hoard. (I wonder if there are animals that hoard non-food things.) Makes me think of Ariel singing “I want moooooore.” At least she got a castle in the end — must be great to have all that space for hoarding tendencies. Anyway, it’s difficult to distinguish between “want” and “need” and the huge gray area in between of “would make life better but not necessary.” All the more so when I don’t know how long I’ll be where I am or where I’ll go next.

July, here are things I need to stop singing “Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat?” about. You heard it here; this is my solemn vow.

  • Food products
  • Socks & tights (too many cute socks here)
  • Musical instruments (it stops at violin and sanshin. NO MORE.)
  • Blankets
  • Everything from the ¥100 store. Seriously.
  • Totoro-related items
  • And now books…
backpackofbooks
The back-breaking backpack of books Ben bade me bring back.

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 8

This turtle bread reminds us that slow, steady, and squashed wins the race.

Dear July,

After three days of making me shiver, you have finally warmed up. Unfortunately, July, you decided to do it on a day where I had to trek around with my laptop and giant bag of everything necessary. The trekking was to the immigration bureau for visa purposes.

Earlier I was upset about the negative aspects of the trip (mainly that I was granted a 1-year visa and not 3 years like I asked for, and also this girl and her friend budged me in line). But really there is only one thing that matters: my extension of period of stay application was approved and I’m not getting kicked out of the country come August!

Tonight I went “running.” Quotation marks because my runs compared to an actual runner are the equivalent of a small child waddling a few steps forward and falling on her face. Well, at least she tried. I dislike running, but I can’t do zumba in my apartment without being paranoid about crazy neighbors.

It’s been a month because the last time I went running, I actually did fall with great momentum on asphalt, scraping ALL my hands and knees. Especially my left knee, which was skinless for quite a worrying while and will never look the same again. And guess what, July? I saw other people in the neighborhood walking and running! Not just all the people walking home from the train station but actual fellow exercisers! This was the first sighting, so I thought maybe it’s considered weird for adults to run around at night in Japan. But no, solidarity!

Okay, July. Since I actually made effort to be physically active, you better stay cool enough (at least at night) for more running-without-losing-a-limb attempts.

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 7

Dear July,

It’s 7/7 or Tanabata, or the day of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd if you know your world mythology, July. So far as I have gathered, this means that in Japan, children decorate and hang wishes from bamboo grass and not much else happens. There seems to be some kind of star theme, like with food. (Which reminds me of that “Be A Star” song from Life Size with Lindsey Lohan when she was little and adorable.)

jingisukan

For me, today it meant meeting Genghis Khan. (Or should I say meating… Yuk yuk yuk.)

I guess I should explain. In Japan, there is this dish called “jingisukan” which came from “Genghis Khan” that is DIY grilled lamb/mutton. (I don’t know how old the animals we were consuming were.) Picture Korean BBQ with lamb/mutton. It’s probably more realistic Mongolian BBQ than the HuHot interpretation. (If you wish, you may consult omniscient deity Wikipedia here for more info.)

Today’s word of the day is 共食い tomogui or (animal) cannibalism. (There’s another word for human cannibalism.) I guess I should explain again. The name Rachel means ‘ewe’ (pronounced like ‘you’) or female sheep. So yum, cannibalism.

Stay bright, July.

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 6

00260706-225737-82657456.jpgDear July,

I play violin. Today I had six hours of orchestra rehearsal. You’re probably thinking, why would you ever do that to yourself. That’s how I feel about people that go running for hours or do other insane (in my opinion) exercise involving activities. A long orchestra rehearsal actually kinda nice in a musical workout kind of way.

And it can be quite fun when you’ve gotten to know and like the piece you’re spending hours practicing. You’re just hanging out with a friend.

The story of my friendship with Beethoven Symphony No. 8:

It was really awkward when we first met. My first experience sight reading left me with the impression that we couldn’t get along. The piece spoke too quickly and I didn’t understand what it was going on about.

As we became better acquainted the last few months, I’ve realized that this symphony is pretty cool and fun and exciting to hang out with. Sometimes it can be a bit difficult but we’re working out some of our disagreements. Now I’ve come to enjoy spending time with this symphony and I hope you can meet it soon. By coming to our concert. (Apparently this post will end in self-promotion.)

Come to my concert, regardless of whether you’re in Japan or not. Real friends come to their friends’ concerts even when they live across the pond that is the Pacific Ocean. (Its size pales in comparison to the vastness of our deep friendship. Right, O true friend of mine?)

The details: Saturday, August 30th, 1:30pm (doors open at 1), Narashino Cultural Hall in Tsudanuma, Chiba city. It’s free! We’re playing Beethoven Symphony No. 8, Sibelius Symphony No. 5, and Helios Overture by Nielsen.

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 5

00260706-001410-850401.jpgDear July,

Today was full of too many things. So here are two.

First, I smell like BBQ from standing next to the grill at an orchestral social gathering. Friends are quite difficult to make anywhere in a new place, and even more so in a country where you don’t really speak the language. So I really appreciate when anyone tries to make an effort to speak with me, in English or Japanese.

Secondly, I survived the crowds that flooded the Narita Gion Festival (full Chiba-kun ambassador post to come later). On one occasion, people pulling the floats actually pushed me off the curb and I caught myself on several vacuum-sealed packages of pickled goods. Also the festival had many other fun non-life threatening things, which I will detail later in that post to come.

I seem to always have more fun than I think I will when I convince myself to go do things with people. In the words of April Ludgate from Parks and Recreation, “I hate talking. To people. About things.” But I guess not all the time.

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 4

photoDear July,

Happy fourth of you! Instead of gobbling up a whole carton of blueberries, burning my tongue on freshly grilled corn on the cob, and being eaten alive by mosquitoes while waiting for fireworks with friends; today I made the end-of-term listening test, had sushi and edamame for lunch, and went to dinner with a coworker.

In honor of you, I learned to play Star-Spangled Banner on the violin, but that’s about it on the ‘Murica patriotism front.

We went to dinner at a Taiwanese restaurant. Enjoying Taiwanese sausage and mapo tofu while hearing the buzz of restaurant staff yelling in Chinese, it felt like home.

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 3

Saw some parts of the area that I hadn't seen before as I rode in a coworker's car to go to another school to give some middle schoolers a sample high school lesson.
Saw some parts of the area that I hadn’t seen before as I rode in a coworker’s car to go to another school to give some middle schoolers a sample high school lesson.

Dear July,

I came home today and felt sad. It was the kind of sad where I didn’t know why I was feeling that way. Nothing happened on my way home from work to turn my mood from hungry and accomplished to melancholic. The thing about being sad is that you are always forced to ponder the why.

Here are possible reasons my brain came up with: Maybe I hadn’t eaten enough today (I’ve gotten really lazy with cooking). Maybe I haven’t been getting as much sleep as I would like. Maybe scheduling and making plans can be stressful. Maybe it’s lonely living alone sometimes. Maybe I realized today was the last time I would teach a class until September and teaching usually helps improve my mood since I have to be happy for an audience. Maybe I haven’t had time to practice violin after school lately. Maybe I miss my family and haven’t had the chance to talk to them in a while.

Perhaps my soul just got a little tired. Perhaps there is no reason.

Meloncholy: That feeling you get when you go to the grocery store and look at the prices of melons. (In Japan, honeydew are like $5 and watermelons are like $10. At least at my local grocery store.)

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 2

gradingselfie
A portion of the papers I have yet to grade.

Dear July,

Today, like many other days recently, was very long. The end of the term is approaching, which means all the papers that I have done nothing more than put into piles must now be sorted through. And I made the mistake of having students turn in homework and worksheets during the last team teaching class, which means I get to grade and return 640 worksheets between the last class and their exam. I only have myself to blame.

I’m excited for summer break to start. Even though I still have to come to school everyday, I’m ready for a break from the routine of classes and preparing for the next lesson. I’m excited to start my summer projects (both school-related and personal). But despite the humdrum of grading and the need for something different, I love teaching. Here are three moments (of many) that made me fall in love with teaching:

1. When a student (who I sadly no longer teach because I only teach first years) saw me after spring break and was so happy to see me, she came up to me and hugged me with a huge smile on her face.

2. When two students came to have lunch with me at my second school where I don’t really know any of the students (I go there once a week and see each class only once or twice a term). Last time, the question of “which” vs. “where” came up in our conversation and I was able to help them understand! I was so happy I was able to explain something difficult with my terrible Japanese and also really proud of them for being able to understand from just a few examples.

3. When this quiet student did his show and tell presentation, he talked about his cat and said it was the size of 30 Black Thunder chocolate bars and then proceeded to pull out an actual Black Thunder bar for reference. After his presentation, he gave me the chocolate bar.

black_thunder
A Black Thunder chocolate bar

{Letters to July was originally the brainchild of Emily Diana Ruth on Youtube. Take a look at her beautiful videos here.}

Letters to July / 1

Inspired by Emily Diana Ruth‘s lovely video series Letters to July, which you need to check out. Click here for 2013 and here for 2014.

photo (3)
View from the English department office

Dear July,

I am sitting at school, listening to Shima Uta on repeat and the buzzing of an ambiguously terrifying giant fly-meets-bee insect as it flies around angrily looking for the open window in vain.

It’s July but it doesn’t really feel like July. To me, July summons memories of my last few weeks in Madison almost exactly a year ago: going downtown for Concert on the Square and the farmer’s market, revisiting all my old childhood haunts like the swings at the park and the local library, and giant watermelons, blueberries, and cherries galore.

Although nostalgic for that July, today I feel very at home here in this life. Grateful for my life in this not-so-foreign-anymore country.

Emily’s description of her first Letters to July video pretty much describes how I feel: “A project I may or may not continue. WE’LL SEE, KIDS! Also, welcome to my private thoughts!”

I guess I’m used to sharing my thoughts with the Internet. I used to have a LiveJournal in high school that was mainly for complaining and ranting. Now I have this blog that I created senior year of college in the job hunting process because I read all these articles about having an “online presence” and being Googleable. (That’s why there’s a page for my resume.) Now that I’m a Chiba-kun ambassador I have this slight fear that this will become a bit travel brochure-y and for mass consumption. Boring. I hate boring.

To be blunt, I don’t really care about you. This space is for me. Welcome to Letters to July.

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