Return to Sender

Dear anonymous 14-year-old student;

I sincerely hope you weren’t “very enjoyed” this summer vacation.

Your Concerned English Teacher.


A la Futon


I’m not feeling so lollipops and swingsets today.  I’m not about to burst into a cloud of confetti.  Which is strange, seeing as I’m at elementary school today, and usually that’s enough to spark a marshmallows and unicorns mood.  But, I happened across this comic, and thought I’d share.

I hit a wall of culture shock yesterday–the dreaded excessive sleeping one.  And after my hike with the hiking club, I slept, and slept, and slept. I woke up, fixed dinner, and then slept some more.  Seventeen hours of sleep out of twenty four, and I still had trouble waking up this morning.  Maybe body needed it.  Maybe my immune system did. Either way, I won’t be making a habit of sleeping my life away.

There’re plenty of things to look forward to.

Bunkasais.  Owl City concert–my birthday present to myself.  (Provided I can get the time off–that’s tomorrow’s project.)  Package in the mail.  Some sort of festival this weekend.  Making new friends . . . there’re three ears of corn sitting in my fridge, just waiting for me to surprise one of my building’s teachers with her favourite dish.  Aaaaaaaand I get internet in my apartment in six days!  Pretty durn excited for that.

A bit of a sunburst, anyways.

Yes, effectively caffeinated or not, life is pretty good right now.

Weekends whizz by . . .


I had the best weekend I’ve had in a long time. In a long, long time.  Which is quite a feat to say.   Here, each weekend has really been better than the last; a string, a parade of wonder!  And technically, I was even working for half of this one.  (Stowin’ up school vacation for later, awhh yeah!)

It started off with getting out of school on Friday, after a final speech contest practice with two of my junior high girls.  They’re really good—one of them, I think, has a really strong chance, at least.  The other might place as well, but her pronunciation isn’t as spot on with a few of the letters.  A good school day transisted into a good evening—I met up with Steph from Motoyoshi halfways, at the local Jusco.  (That’s our little shopping mall.)  I needed to pick up a few fresh groceries (chocolate!) and cutesy house things.  No luck with the making my bath room (tub, as opposed to the toilet, which is in a separate closet) pretty stuff, aside from some super awesome My Friend Totoro towel-plushie sets.  (Totoro, in all his glory, can be seen HERE: ).  So, my bathroom looks marginally less pitiful now, but still needs more work.   The Totoro moved into my living room, regally presiding over the bookshelf/bureau.  And my fridge, stocked for the week-ish with the stuff that’s considerably more expensive, or that I can’t get in Karakuwa, as well as everything I might need for the impending weekend.  And, I had everything I need to make tacos!

Provisioned, Steph and I were ready.  We drove out to Karakuwa, played some tetris to get my stuff to fit in the fridge, and the things got really interesting.  We’d planned to go to supper at GiGi’s, this adorable little restaurant that doesn’t look like much from the outside, but is kind of THE place for the locals to go in Karakuwa.  I can’t rave enough about their parfaits . . .  However, we got there and there was a random kanji sign in the window that we couldn’t read, and it was dark.  Did not bode well.  A few raps on the door confirmed that our plan was foiled.   Luckily, there was an apt backup plan available.  About five minutes away, at a famous site, there was a ‘Karakuan Restaurant’ I’d seen, but never been to.  It’s at the parking lot for one of the coastline parks, right at the most famous point, the “Orieishi” 16m natural marble column.  We drove there as well, and it was about 8:20 by this point, so we were getting pretty ravenous.  Most of the lights were off, but looking in the wide front window, there was a fellow in a t-shirt and apron watching TV, and sipping a beer.  Open?  Closed?  We couldn’t be sure, but there was no harm in asking.  Our raps on the window were answered, and a brief conversation confirmed that he would feed us if we were hungry.  The menu was all kanji, so he went through it with us, leaving out the stuff that he couldn’t cook because the friers weren’t fired up.  He did fry us up some delicious pork sets, and he joined us in a (more broken than usual—it’d been a long week) conversation.  I learned that his two daughters were both students at my school, and this restaurant had been a favourite hangout (drinking) place of Ed, my predecessor.  He told us of other experiences with foreigners, notably an Uruguayan who’d been backpacking across Japan and knew no English and no Japanese, making for some fun conversation when ordering an overnight room.  He also requested our signatures (mine and Steph’s) so he could give them as souvenirs to his daughters.  We happily obliged.  That wasn’t all for the souvenirs, though.  He showed us to a photo gallery, full of shots of Orieishi, at sunset, sunrise, midday, midstorm, starlit sky . . .  they were really quite breathtaking.  We both picked up some packets of postcards.  Overall, it was just really lovely, and really . . .  fated feeling.  I’m glad we met him, and I’ll definitely have to go back.

The last (interesting) things we learned at the Karakuan restaurant was he collected business cards from various people that passed through, and also that he was making the obentos (lunchboxes) for the next day’s sports festival.  Several hundred-odd bentos for the students and their families, though apparently the teachers’ would come from another location.  So, in the morning, Steph and I woke up early and chowed down on good ol’ homemade Finnish pancakes before heading to Karakuan restaurant.  I popped in, and gave him my business card, and then we headed down to Orieishi.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t bask in the nature for too long.  I had a sports festival to go to.  Steph and I parted ways, each sated with English conversation for a while.

I screamed my lungs out fully as much as I expected to, telling my students to “gambatte.”  (It means “fight” or “do your best” or “you can do it”—take your pick.)  They ran some of the races I expected them to, as well as some I didn’t.  The millipede ladder three-legged-race twist one happened as expected, as did the baton pass relay, standard running and wheelchair races, and overlarge tug of war.  However, they also had some sort of obstacle course with adults from some sort of special education day care centre, as well as a “make a road out of your hunched over backs for the smallest student in your class” race (I don’t know how to explain it any better, sorry), “knock the paper hat off the student ‘samurai’ atop a three-person student ‘horse’” event, and a “carry a baseball atop a tennis racket” relay race just for grandmothers and grandfathers.  And of course, there was the class cheer-making contest.  A panel of judges, myself included helped to pick the best one.  And I was the deciding vote.  Not an easy choice!  I didn’t do any running this year, just mostly chilled in the tea-dispersal tent with the lunchladies and some of the mothers, and helped to serve tea to various principals and other prominent attendees.  Next year, however, I have been assured that I’ll be participating full force!

Sports festival wrapped up at about three, so I was thinking that I might be able to boot it to Kesennuma to catch a big band concert near Dustin and Rachel’s.  However, the teachers in my building were going to be going together to the teachers’ celebratory enkai that night, and it’d been arranged that I’d go with them.  So, I chilled in my apartment instead, and we headed there in S-sensei’s car.

What happened at the enkai will, I think, stay at the enkai, but nothing too wild really happened this time around.  The second party was also quite sane.  S-sensei drove the principal back out to Karakuwa (because taxis are an arm and a leg, and you can’t drive with any blood alcohol content whatsoever in Japan) while the head teacher and the other teacher who lives in my building, a first year Japanese teacher, walked to a bar to wait for S-sensei to rejoin us.  There, at Moon Rock Café, among the guitar-hung walls, S-sensei and I decided that we were ‘Team Soft Drink’.  We also squee’d over the bar’s cat, Maron.  Apparently he belongs to the girlfriend/wife of the guy that owns the bar.

And Sunday, Sunday dawned magically, but unfortunately with much rain.  My Sannohe host mother and host father, unfortunately, would not get to see Karakuwa in all its glory.  I woke up early enough to bake a couple of banana bread cakes, and get the apartment cleaning under control.  I wasn’t sure what time Otoosan (father) and Okaasan (mother) would be coming by, so I figured they wouldn’t possibly get here before 10:30, and basically embarked on my mad dash of domestic goddesshood (I know, they’re few enough and far between).  The third and final cake was out of the oven by the time they arrived—they’d driven down the whole way from Aomori! And it only took four hours!  They must have flown!  They called when they got close, so I waved them in from my window, and they popped up to my apartment for a peek.

I had some Kesennuma souvenirs ready for them—namely some famous “Seagull Egg” individually-wrapped cakes, as well as my homemade (still warm) cake, and some things I had brought from Canada for them and for their children.  Kaori has a two year old son now!  And Yuuki has a one year old son and a three month old daughter!  It’s mind-blowing!  Man, the carefree, ever-joking  twenty-two year old I’d known on my exchange sure has changed!  We three went together to GiGi’s for lunch, and caught up.  Although the weather wasn’t ideal, we still popped over to pay our tributes to Orieishi.  And then . . .  then we had a few options.  No one was really in a sightseeing mood (except me, ha, though there is supposedly a lovely little modern art museum here I’ve yet to see) so we went shopping at good ol’ Jusco.

They couldn’t stay long, all in all, because they had to drive back to Aomori before dark.  But it was a really, really lovely visit, and I was super-grateful to catch up with ‘em.  I still phone occasionally, and I’m going to go back and visit Aomori sometime in the near future.  Just when, I’ve yet to figure.

But my wonderful weekend was not yet over.  Because we’d gone out for lunch and they hadn’t stayed for dinner, I had all the fixings to make myself a heap of tacos.  I don’t know about you, but I think tacos eaten alone is about the loneliest food of all, so I set out to knock on the doors of the three young woman teachers that live in my apartment building, and invite them for dinner later in the week.  Two were out, but S-Sensei was in, and, as luck would have it, bored!  So, I invited her on up to my apartment, and we watched some subtitled anime, her understanding the Japanese, and I, the written English.  (Chocolate Underground, if you’re interested.  It’s a cute, quick little view.  Maybe about an hour if you add together all the 5-minute episodes?)  Then, as luck would have it, she saw my little presiding Totoro.  Have you seen it, she asked?  I admitted I had not, but wanted to.  With that, she popped down to her room and reappeared shortly, a booklet of DVDs in her hand.  And with that, I was initiated to Totoro.  We ate leftovers, and enjoyed chocolate and icecream and each others’ company, and all in all, I couldn’t’ve asked for a better weekend.

Wish I could do it all again!

School Happenings Hodgepodge


Mailbox of letters,

Catch the yellow bouncing ball

My student loves who?



That may be my worst poem yet.  But no matter.  Consider it a teaser.


Yesterday was really a mixed bag of things.  However it was very fun and interesting, and couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than Japanese school life.  Let me start off by saying that I was at my smallest junior high.  When I say small, I mean quite small, with only 3 classes—8 students, about 14 students, and 20 students.  It’s a nice size, and a very relaxed atmosphere for the most part.  The teachers have a bit more free time here than is usual in a junior high, and everyone eats lunch together.  This is the stuff dramas are made of.


There are also a few other quirky things about the school, like the school lunch.  I already knew that the school lunch was sent from here to at least one elementary school in the area.  What I DIDN’T know was that the school has a farm, on property, tended by the students and a select few teachers.  A FARM.  Well, a garden, I guess, because there are no animals.  But still!  Harvest season is upon us apparently because yesterday there was a surplus, and every student in the school got to take home five ‘piman’s, or miniature (delicious) green peppers, and one eggplant.  And so did the teachers!  I was a little surprised when an overlarge eggplant and three green peppers materialized on my desk, to say the least, but the teachers assured me it was okay to take them home.  School lunches in Koharagi will be particularly delicious from now on, I suspect!


I also played a game for the first time; I broke in the letter-covered yellow beach balls that Devi and I bought at the teacher supply store in Thunder Bay, and they were a hit!  But, I have to say, my first-graders (equivalent to seventh graders) were learning numbers last week so I taught them “Dix” as a warm-up game.  In English, of course.  Do you know Dix?  The obnoxious game where the whole class stands up, and the students count?  They can say one, two, or three numbers.  One-two-three, four-five, six-seven-eight, nine, TEN!  Whoever says ten is angry, because they have to sit down, and they’re out.  Battles are won and lost in Dix.  The teacher told me that the class loved Dix so much that they begged her to play it during the last English class.  When she said no, they were angry.  We snuck in another round in our class.  But it made me smile!


And my second-graders were fun, too.  They’re the class of eight students.  They had each written a “diary entry” for their summer vacation, modelled on an example.  Most started with “In August, I went to Koharagi Elementary School for the summer festival.”  (Though to be fair, three of ‘em went on other trips that they wrote about.)  But from there, they diverged greatly.  Some focussed on the water balloon game, (he “got” lots of water balloons), or the fireworks.  One took this as an opportunity to tease his friend about dancing with a girl.  But one boy was very brave, and got up and told the whole class that he had exchanged emails with a certain girl.  Not just any girl, but one who was pretty AND kind.  The teacher and I were pretty floored.  Fourteen year old confessions of almost-undying love.  This is especially bold for Japan, where romance is usually so hush-hush.  People don’t talk about their relationship status, like, at all.  You may not even know that one of your coworkers is dating until they announce an engagement.  And public displays of affection?  Holding HANDS is in itself a rarity.  So with his declaration, my student made me smile.


Beyond that, the English speech contest practices are starting to wrap up.  The contest will be the 14th, so I’ve been telling my other ALT compadres that “My students can take your students!”  Actually, I’m not entirely sure that’s true because each school chooses two students with good English aptitude in the first place to compete in the contest, and there are about 30 students total.  Only the top 5 or 6 will place, so, they’ll have to keep working hard.  I only have two more practices, one for each school.  It’s nice on one hand, because it means I’ll get out of school at 4:30 or 5 instead of 5:30 or 6 every day, but on the other hand I’ll kind of miss being useful, and the students are sweet.  In the meantime, I’ll help as best I can!


So now, full-bellied with piman and eggplant, with another workday almost behind me, a mailbox full of letters from my students awaits me.  Wish me luck!  I’ve got replies to write.  And speech contest stuff starting soon, too.

The Stuff that Dreams are Made of ….


I’m in a strange kind of mood today.  A melancholy mood, which is odd, because things really have been coming up nothing but roses today.  I had my first undokai yesterday, or sports festival, for two of my schools.  Koharagi chuugakko (Junior High, the website meticulously maintained by the principal is , and look, I’m famous! ) and Koharagi shogakko (Elementary) are both small schools, so they had a combined sports festival.  Because the initial date was rained out (thank you, typhoon!), it was transferred to Sunday, and conflicted with my plans with the hiking club.  So, I didn’t get to attend the whole festival, and I felt really bad.  So, it was my first sports festival as a teacher, followed by my first mountain climb with the club, then a quick nap, and my first enkai.  An enkai is pretty much an office party where Vegas rules apply—what happens at the enkai STAYS at the enkai, no ifs, ands, or buts, no matter how drunk one gets.  Enkais, I’ve heard, can get pretty wild.  Mine was comparatively tame—even the Niijikai, or second party, where I went to karaoke with a bunch of elementary school teachers (at the one school I haven’t actually taught at yet—but no matter!).  So yesterday was full, and fun, and ripe with good news.  I also talked to my Sannohe host family, the Sakamotos, and they’re going to come visit me on the weekend, which is super-exciting!   Today just got better and better in many respects—I went to elementary school and my morning greeting was that each and every one of the first grade students came and gave me a little letter (often accompanied with a picture of me).   AND I also heard a rumour that thanks to Saturday’s undokais all around town getting rained out, my other junior high’s sports festival that I couldn’t go to due to conflict may in fact have a DIFFERENT raindate, and I might be able to go yet!  I’ll find out tomorrow.  I had some friendly chats with my neighbours and landlord, I cooked a pretty edible dinner despite my experimentations in random potentially-yummy looking barbecue sauces, and I might have Friday night plans with another ALT who lives not too far away, who is AWESOME.  I think I’m going to invite my neighbour over, too, for dinner one of these weekdays.  I might write her a letter tomorrow.  Or just knock on her door.  My Japanese is getting better, and I’m recognising words and tenses that I’ve picked up in the past month despite my complete disregard for concerted study, and the lady at the grocery store remarked on it today.  I applied for internet and might actually be getting it soon, not just sporadic phone and school usage.  I’m figuring out where my schools are and no longer miss the turnoffs (yay!  This is far more of an accomplishment than it should be).  Oh, and I also got my car today!  My real car, Taro-kun, so the Ta-Ta combo is complete!  AND it goes backwards!  I really need to pick up some baking or something to drop off at the car place.

But still, I find myself feeling down today.  I sincerely hope the honeymoon phase isn’t over yet.  I recognise in myself that I keep throwing myself into things, hoping . . .  to keep myself from falling into that lonely place.  And so far it’s working, though I may or may not be running my health aground a bit.  And though I seem to have far more moments of incompetence than I’d hope.

And so tonight, I find myself lying awake on my futon, wondering, the clutter of a few collected days clouding my consciousness despite my exhaustion.  Instead of clearing, it crystalizes into a hundred wishes, each more ostentatious and outrageous than the last.  I wish I could understand what people were saying to me all the time.  I wish I were cleverer.  I wish I were more reliable.  I wish this apartment were spotless.  I wish I was better at decorating it with a charming and congruous character, so I’d be prouder to invite people back here.   (While I’m wishing for paragons, I might as well wish to do it cheaply!)   I wish I could read kanji, and be literate.  I wish I could instantly understand every language, human, animal, vegetable, and mineral.  I wish I understood what I want to do after this JET thing, for sure.  I wish I had an infectious smile.  I wish that everywhere I went that people for a ten-person radius around me couldn’t stop smiling.  I wish that everyone I love could gather together on the same side of the same ocean.  I wish I had a unicorn and a gryphon and I could choose which, every day, I wanted to ride to school, and they would be friends.  I wish there really was a rainbow after every rainfall and I could send my students out searching for the pot of gold at the end of it, so they could know the joy of finding the treasure.  I wish for world peace.  I wish I could fix things better (this one’s hard for me, because here, I’m not the one people will run to when they have a problem, and I’m not ever going to be for my teachers and students.  And that’s . . . weird for me.  To know that I can’t really aspire for that).  I wish there were more (read: any) romance in my life (but not that my life may be interesting, because that’s a Chinese curse, after all). I wish that my students would all win the speech contest next week.  I wish that I just wouldn’t mess anything up.  I wish that I wouldn’t miss the importance of anything that is said or happens or isn’t said that people expect or hope or am afraid I will pick up on.  I wish I could always send the right signal back, or say the right things, and that my tongue was gilded with silver as would be befitting such glib tactics.  And that everything I said with said silver tongue would be to build someone up, and not tear them down.  I wish that everyone I meet could see, through our encounter, how beautiful and wonderful they are, and how beautiful and wonderful they have the potential to be.  I wish that I could be there instantly whenever someone called on me.  I wish I had a secret teleportation portal to my sister’s room in Canada (or a magic slide, or a roller coaster—I’d settle for that.)  I wish that I never truly needed sleep, and never ever felt tired, but I could have it if I wanted it, and I missed dreams for a while.  I wish I had a magical piano that took whatever music was on my heart and splayed it out on the keyboard, that never let my fingers miss a note, and I could make anyone hear that I wanted to, wherever they were.  I wish that I could do all of these things, and at the end of the day, still have a little knot of self in the middle left for me.  Some part of me that could sigh, and sit back at the end of the day, and say, Tara, you done good, some part of me where I could tuck away the best memories for a Charlie Brown Raincloud sort of day. I wish I could have this part, and want this part, and not feel selfish for the wanting, and selfish for the not-keeping-it-in-check when its laziness infringes on other wishes.

I wish . . . I wish.  For now, I’ll try just to wish for the typhoon rains to lull me to sleep on my futon, as they patter at my windowpane, and for the crash of the waves against the cliffs to become the tides of breath to my ears.  And maybe, maybe tomorrow I can make some wishes come true.  Tomorrow I can give more than I take.  Tomorrow, tomorrow, we’ll see.

To a miserable sunnuvagun:


Dear Body,

I know we don’t always get along, but when times are good, they’re very good indeed.  We usually make such a superb team!  If I can dream it, you can achieve it.  Isn’t that the way it’s always been?  I know you want me to settle down.  Sleep more.  Eat “normal foods”.  Stick to some sort of reasonable schedule.  I respect that, and I’m getting there, I swear.  (Though I can’t make any promises in the food department.)

But Body, isn’t this a bit extreme?  Seriously: cold, lost voice, nosebleed, and eye infection, all in the same day?  Not cool.  Seriously not cool.

I’m going to the hospital today, to get you that medication you’ll need now. It’ll be our very first experience with the Japanese hospital system.   I hope you’re happy.  For the record, I don’t expect you to apologise or anything, and that’s fine, I can accept that.  I just want to let you know that I’m looking forward to the day when you act rationally again, like a reasonable set of skin and organs.


A none-too-impressed-Tara

The Best 200 Yen I Ever Spent . . .


Here, my friends, is an Ode to my Car, Taro-kun, one half of the not-yet-infamous TaTa Combo, as it is affectionately dubbed by Dustin.

Spit and sputter little car,

I hope that you will take me far.

Grunt and grumble up the hill,

You’ll get there, I know you will.

Grumble, rumble, little car,

Not too fast, you’ll take me far.

Nose into the parking space,

I back you up, you stay in place.

Spit and sputter little car,

A little work, you’ll take me far.

Repairman takes you to his shop,

He’ll fix you up, your parts won’t pop!

Wait for me my little car,

Not quite yet, you’ll take me far.

As you can gather, my car has been . . .  less than cooperative in working for me thusfar.  And I was to get it . . .  Sunday.  It was a pretty crazy day to start with, coming in from Sendai after dancing until the wee hours, which took WAY longer than it should’ve, for no fathomable reason whatsoever.  So I was waaaay behind schedule for picking up the car, which I was supposed to do that afternoon.  Since I understand almost no business Japanese, I brought backup.  I signed some papers, and had an insurance policy presented to me, the explanation to which I understood NONE of, aside from the odd thing that Dustin explained to me.  Then I drove the car—Taro-kun—home.

The drive was super short, as it’s literally a block and a half to my apartment.  Granted, it’s all uphill, but it’s really not a long drive.  Rachel accompanied me for the maiden voyage.  But, something wasn’t quite right.  My first tip-off was attempting to hasten through the intersection.  The pedal was literally to the metal and even so it crawled through.  “Should probably get that looked at tomorrow,” we decided.  Regardless of making it through the intersection in the appropriate number of pieces, I didn’t really like my long-term odds of not getting T-boned.  Then I tried to turn into my parking space.  Call it driving on the wrong side of the road, or a new vehicle, or whatever, I wound up a little crooked.   So, I tried to back up to realign.  I put it into gear and . . . nothing.  More gas?  Still nothing.  The engine revved, but the car did not budge an inch.  I tried changing gears, I tried turning the car on and off, I tried a bunch of stuff.  But still, nothing.

At which point I was wildly late for my landlord’s dinner party, and didn’t want to bug the car shop guys at 8PM on a Sunday, especially when they already had stayed late, even if I would have to walk to school tomorrow.

It would only happen to me.

My car’s saga is ongoing.  I did go in to the shop on Monday and found that they needed to order another part, something to do with the computer, so it’ll be another week or so before its settled.  So hopefully it’ll be okay?  I’ve got a lender car in the meantime, so the additional 200 yen per month I pay on my insurance to let me drive ANY car is probably the best 200 yen I’ve ever spent.

(Actually, it’s either that, or the bag of ‘ricola’ candies I found at an import store in Sendai Station, and that I picked up “just in case”.  I’ve lost my voice now, owing to some sort of foreign mutated cold virus.  It’s a toss up.  I’m now fighting it with the power of 140 lemons, courtesy of CC Lemon’s vitamin C drink promises.)

Optimist I may be, but keep your fingers crossed for me anyways, please!