Saturday, January 30, 2010

Baking in Japan

Baking was one of the things I thought I would have to give up while in Japan. Ovens are not very common in Japanese kitchens (especially not in our tiny single flats), and even though baking supplies abound, it's just not an option for me right now. That is, until I met a fellow English teacher who does own an oven... and loves to bake as well. Luckily he's my neighbour, so I think today marked the start of a Saturday afternoon baking (and wine) tradition...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My new best friend

My cute little bicycle. I picked it for it's creamy, buttery color that reminds me of custard and cupcakes. It's a typical Japanese city bike, with a basket that's perfect for shopping, and it locks up on the back wheel. I hate leaving it outside at night, and I've missed it all day. I rode it around Marugame all night last night, picking up sweets along the way, and discovering more of my town. I actually purchased the bicycle at the supermarket, and got it registered in case of theft. I'm thankful I ran into my friend who speaks fluent Japanese, he helped me set up all the paperwork... and the bike was mine! My lovely friend Isabel has the same bicycle, but in blue. I'm just so happy to be able to ride it around and see more of Marugame and discover nice little places... I love my bike... and Marugame is my oyster.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sophisticated Marugame

Although I consider my past weekend activities to be a little... uncouth, the rest of my time in Japan is spent looking for the coziest cafés, wine bars, and best sweets in town. Marugame may be covered in rice fields and mountains, but there are so many hidden little gems. And now that I have a shiny new bike and new friends to show me around, my life has gotten a bit more sophisticated... despite the weekends spent at cabins and various noodles shops and karaoke rooms. I just found the perfect balance. I love, love, love Japan.

{Umie café, hidden in an industrial building now converted into a cozy library-like setting}

{Café Taupe, where the owner makes his own cakes, and the wonderful spicy ginger tea}

{My favourite Japanese sweet shop. Ichigo daifuku-sticky rice cakes filled with a big strawberry and a flavoured paste of your choice: chocolate, tiramisu, cheese, custard, red bean}

{A lovely wine bar... I just adore anything bubbly...}

{Or red wine and some strong cheeses, which are so, so hard to find here. I savoured every single bite}

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cabin Fever

Cabin in the woods, poetry readings, karaoke night, gin tonics, guitar, and bus rides. This pretty much sums up my whirlwind weekend in the Shikoku wilderness. This weekend was Burns Night, a celebration of poet Robert Burns, where dozens of fellow English teachers met up in the woods for a night of poetry reading and cocktails. In fact, it's a fun party disguised as a literary event... with lots of cocktails and music.

To be fair, a cabin in Japan is not exactly as rustic as a cabin back home. I was expecting wilderness and bear sightings, but we pretty much ended up on a luxury resort, with very few trees and too many vending machines. The cabins were all pretty warm and cozy, and within seconds of one another. I had wonderful roommates, with whom I shared a lovely dinner and wine, and then headed to the main cabin for a night of poetry reading.

I was fairly impressed by my peers' skills at reading and performing- everyone got really into it, and many people actually wrote their own poems. The evening continued on very late, with some music, more cocktails, pictures and laughter, everyone piled up in the small tatami room. The night ended early in the morning, when we all crashed on our futons, and tried to sneak a few hours of sleep, until a harsh wake up call from the cleaning ladies.

We had a lazy day walking around the river and enjoying the sun, some people choosing to enjoy the onsen (outdoor baths), or drinking coffee before the bus ride that took us back to Takamatsu. We all went out for bagels downtown, before catching our respective trains back home. And, since we just cannot get enough of each other, about eight of us met up for a late dinner in Marugame, just to hang out and reminisce about the weekend fun.

I love my life in Japan, and I love my new friends here... I feel so smitten with everything right now.

{Sleeping bags, food from the grocery store.. and barely making the train}

{Catching the train to Takamatsu after a late karaoke night... before a long bus ride.  The bus had chandeliers. I'm serious. Welcome to a Japanese bus.}

{Lovely log cabin we stayed in, and the river view... gorgeous}

{The boys making dinner, while the girls chatted and relaxed}

{Some poetry reading and performing, from rap songs to angry deliveries}

{Friendships, loads of sweets, and lots of fruit juice}

Time to go to bed, to catch up on some much, much needed sleep... to get a healthy week full of runs and bike rides.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I'm slightly addicted to origami... which is the Japanese art of paper folding. I remember trying it when I was a kid, but recently got more into it as origami paper is widely available in all of my classrooms. I'm not very good at it, but I was amazed by my kindergarten kids' skills, seriously folding and creating amazing things such as cats and octopi. I did 'borrow' some stacks of colorful paper to take home, and I'm shamelessly folding away and trying to create little marvels... when in Japan... why not.

{Origami octopus, created by my student}

{He taught me how to do it, but honestly, it was quite advanced for my level...}

{I have no idea what this kid created, but he's just super adorable}

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday night in Japan

I've been living in Japan for a little over two months now, and it's been downright incredible. And I cannot help but reflect on how different my life is here than it was back home in Montreal (or even in Seoul). I dearly miss my family, friends, cupcakes, Sunday brunches, and live gigs, but I'm appreciating a more casual lifestyle here, laid back activities, and random weekend trips. I've seen so many beautiful sights and met loads of fascinating people, and the adventure is really just starting. And this time around, I really am living it up, and do things I'd sometimes never, ever do back home...

Late night excursions to ramen shops. All you can drink karaoke (the mere thought makes me cringe, as it's so unsophisticated, but that's the beauty of it). Playing dress up at fancy cocktail parties. Befriending the locals and learning new Japanese words. Biking around town to find the sweet shops and cafés (hello, new bike). Studying the katakana and hiragana characters... and spending three hours writing a chart. Making breakfast for my friends. Candy cane martinis. Filling bowls of tasty udon for 200 yen. Reading and writing. Living on my own. Long train rides by the coast. Hot sake. Taking pictures. Getting real mail. Lazy mornings. Red bean filled pastries. Being outgoing. Hot Chip blasting in my classroom while I prepare. Learning Japanese from my students. Running in the winter weather.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Winter in Japan

Winter in Japan is very mild, especially for a Montrealer. I've been enjoying the warm sunny days, and the absence of snow. It feels a lot like fall. The temperatures have been pretty much between 4-12 degrees Celcius (about 40-55 Farenheit), which is a day at the beach compared to any average January day in Montreal. However, I feel cold most of the time because Japanese homes are not well insulated. Very drafty, paper-thin walls, and no central heat. I do have a small air conditioner unit on my wall, but it does not make a big difference.

Lately I've been curling up in my fluffy blankets, drinking hot caramel tea, and soaking in my hot Japanese bathtub. Bliss! And I love the fact that I've been able to run outdoors during the day, when it's warm and sunny. Evenings are perfect for sharing tea with friends, and having candy and games at each other's houses.

Hiking the mountains on a crisp winter day...

At the top of the mountain, overlooking the rice paddies of Shikoku island... I really do live in the countryside!

Being silly in the little workout areas... typically Asian.

Staying warm, eating candy and playing games with my friends...

Loving the Japanese winter days!!! But I'm terrified of the summer...!!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Crossing the bridge

In my previous post I mentioned the amazing Seto Ohashi bridge, which connects my island to the mainland of Japan. Here is a wonderful picture of it, not taken by me, but by a charming elderly Japanse man I met in Okayama while sightseeing. He was just having a stroll with his wife, and they came up to me excitedly, asking for a picture. Back home this would be considered a tad creepy, but it's definitely not in Japan. He spoke pretty good English and I told him about how beautiful his home was. We exchanged email addresses, and I woke up this morning only to find some wonderful pictures of Japanese scenery, including the bridge to my home:

I think this alone is worth the train ride.

{Here is a map of Japan, with Okayama in red. Shikoku, where I live, is the orange island right across from it. The bridge connects me to the mainland. Yup, I live in the south! Tokyo is located in the aqua blue section on the right, and Osaka + Kyoto are pretty close to me, in the lime green area}

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Okayama day trip

I want to make the most of my free time in Japan, and seeing more of this magnificent country is one my my goals. Okayama is technically the closest biggest city to me (along with Osaka and Kyoto). I live on Shikoku island, which is pretty much the most rural area of Japan, even though we have larger cities such as Takamatsu. Still, I need my city fix once in a while, and Okayama is the quickest way to settle that.

Okayama is located on Japan's mainland, but it's a short train away that requires crossing the Seto-Ohashi bridge, an engineer's dream that offers the most stunning view of the inland sea. The train ride alone is worth the whole journey. Since most of my friends have busier working schedules than I do (I'm seriously spoiled), I decided to take that little day trip on my own. As much as I love traveling with friends and sharing my discoveries (it's something I've been missing quite a bit in Japan), sightseeing on my own is also quite pleasant. I can go wherever I feel like going, stop for hours into small shops, sit down for tea, and just be in my own world.

Today was so much fun, I saw some pretty exquisite sights and sampled tasty treats. Here's a day in Okayama:

Catching the morning train. Good thing I can read the kanji characters for a few cities, it's been very helpful...

A 45-min train ride to finally arrive in Okayama, which is a major stop on the Shinkansen route.

A lunch set before starting the sightseeing. Rice topped with fresh, warm ginger, and a side of tofu and miso soup. Delectable.

Walking in Okayama, towards the garden.

Korakuen garden, which is classified as one of Japan's most beautiful gardens. I think it would be more beautiful in the spring, but it's not so bad for January.

I spent hours wandering around, daydreaming and crossing all the little ponds. 

Taking a little break on the rocks to just take in the sights.

I had some savory little rice cakes with green tea in a little wooden tea house overlooking the pond.

The striking black Okayama castle is pretty famous in Japan. Stunning.

I could not resists buying more little rice cakes to take home as a souvenir (perhaps to share with my friends if I don't eat the whole box tonight)

After the sightseeing, I did some shopping... obviously. Okayama has some fun, trendy stores such as Loft- which is the most amazing shop in the world. It sells everything you could ever dream of, from stationary to beauty products and apparel. I spent a few hours just browsing around. Last but not least, I visited the import food store! Surprisingly, I don't miss anything from home just yet, so I casually walked past the taco spice mix and chick peas (I'll probably run to them in a few months....). I did pick up some peanut butter, though! It's the only thing I've had a bit of trouble finding around my town.

Then it was time to hop on the train back home, cross the bridge back to my dear little Shikoku island, which I love more and more every day.