Ume

In Japanese, 梅:うめ or ume, meaning plum. It’s actually an apricot, but always referred to as a plum. They’re light green when unripe and redden as they ripen. They’re inedible, ripe or unripe. Apparently they’re sour and bitter and a little poisonous. 

Ume are in season right now. They’ll be in season until mid-July. The grocery stores are stocked with bags and bags of these little plums. And stores are also well-stocked with bags of special rock sugar and cartons of white liquor, which you need to make your own umeshu, or plum wine.

Today I watched an old woman fill her cart with lots of liquor and sugar and plums and I imagined her making plum wine. She’s been making her own plum wine for years and years. She probably learned from her mother. When she was younger I bet she thought the preparation process was tedious. But now she finds it soothing: she likes removing all the stem ends from the plums with a bamboo skewer, finds satisfaction in discarding the plums with any brown or blemished spots, enjoys layering the glass jars with plums, rock sugar, plums, rock sugar, liquor. She probably stores these two jars in a compartment under the floorboards, where she keeps all of her other jars of umeshu. Maybe some jars are 3 or 4 years old now, maybe as old as 10. When she opens the compartment to place the fresh jars inside, she takes out one of the older jars, removes the cap, ladles the alcohol into a glass, takes a sip. She calls her husband, who’s out in the garden. He comes in and take a sip from the glass and utters a grunt of approval. She smiles, then screws the cap back on and places the jar back in the compartment, where it’ll continue to wait patiently for a little while longer. 

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Here’s an article about how to make your own umeshu for anyone who’s curious.

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Rice field green

I arrived in Minoh at the beginning of August, which is near the end of rice planting season.

There’s a small rice field behind my apartment building and I pass by it on my way to the train station. I remember thinking how beautiful the color was – a bright emerald green. From then on when someone asked me my favorite color I said, “rice field green.”

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But after the rice was harvested in the fall, the field was nothing more than a plot of dirt. It turned brown and weeds grew and sometimes I found trash and empty bottles thrown in. I’ve been walking past it without a second glance for over half a year now.

But this morning on my walk to the station I noticed that the field had been flooded and little rice grains had been planted.

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And in a few weeks, my favorite little rice field will be grown and green again.

My students

When I walk through the halls my students greet me, in English, hello! Sometimes they’ll ask, how are you? I’ll say I’m good, or great, or happy. When I ask my students how they are they tell me that they’re either very very hungry or very very sleepy. Me too, I say, very very sleepy too.

Sometimes my students will ask me questions about myself. Like: Where are you from? Are you Japanese? Where did you learn English? Why is your English so good?

Once, a student reached up and touched the ends of my hair and said: Why is your hair curly like that? and How does it do that? I told her that it’s natural, that I wake up and my hair is curly. She didn’t understand. I tried my best to explain, but she still didn’t understand how it all worked, so I gave up and said, “magic.”

To get to the English room, my fellow English teacher and I walk down the hall where the 1st grade classes are. If the 1st graders are on break, they’ll run out of their classrooms and call out “Julia-sensei and *****-sensei are here!!” And an ambush of first graders will rush out and cling onto our arms and shout hello!!! and spit out as many English words as they can before we reach the end of the hall.

During the 30 minute break before third period starts, sometimes a few 1st, 2nd, and/or 3rd graders will stop by the English room to visit me and my partner. They’ll write our names on the chalkboard in katakana. They’ll tap on the electric board while I pull up my PowerPoint for the next lesson and they’ll ask what the other grades are studying today. They’ll talk to us, joke with us, tell us how their day is going. They’ll complain about being very very very sleepy.

When classes start, my students file in, green English files and patterned pencil cases in hand. They’ll wave at me and my partner and say good morning or good afternoon. A few scream it.

Some come up to me and stare at my name tag and then touch the heart sticker I stuck in the corner.

One of my 3rd grade students always enters the classroom pretending to be a zombie. He’ll come in with wide eyes and dangling arms, walk up to me and my partner and scratch at our arms like a zombie until we say “zombie, zombie!”

My students are obsessed with stickers. (Well, I suppose all students probably love stickers, no matter where you are in the world.) In Japanese they’re called シール, or seals. I’ve bought a bunch of sheets from Daiso, the 100 yen store. I buy extra because sometimes at the end of the day I like to take leftover stickers and stick them on my lessons plans or the back of my name tag.

Recently I’ve been trying to include more activities where I can hand them out as a reward.

Because I only have about a month left with my students and I know that I’m going to miss giving them stickers.

 

What I noticed on my walk to a coffee shop this afternoon

Once in a while there’s a breeze / The leaves bob up and down, side to side / Looks like they’re laughing / A bell / Someone on their bicycle behind me / A whirring / A reusable grocery bag in their basket / The telephone wires hang low / They are a dark thunderstorm gray and look like spider webs / The rice field behind my apartment complex is starting to grow back / A few dandelions are growing in the gutter / When it rains the water flows through these gutters like a river / The city is laced with little rivers / A woman in a suit walking past me / Her heels make a clack sound against the pavement / She is going to the station / The next train comes at 3:11 – every ten minutes / She must be going into the city / Nameplates at the entrances / This is the house where the Takahashi’s live / Tanaka, Aratani, Kamigawa / Hand towels hanging on a balcony / A toddler’s bicycle parked by the door / Vines crawling along fences / The alley that leads to the station’s entrance is lined with flower pots / The east entrance / Two young men smoking beside the trash bins outside Family Mart / A dental clinic, a nursery / A father and daughter holding hands / Her hair in two pigtails / He’s wearing slippers / The train is coming / It’ll slow then pause at the platform and then screech to a start faster faster and disappear / And another will come in ten minutes

Japan in the spring

Japan in the spring is a chorus of wind chimes, of rustled leaves, of bicyclists and joggers and families on foot passing by on the main street. It’s a sharp breath of fresh, clean air – a deep inhale, like coming up for breath after being underwater for a long time.

And it’s warm, like ten a.m. sunlight on the back of your neck. And you can feel it in your chest – this soft, delicate warmth – like there’s a bud in your stomach that’s just sprouted and its branches are intertwining themselves carefully around your lungs and filling, feeding you with its breath.

This warmth is constant, present, even at night when its cool. You can keep your windows open at night now, even though you haven’t opened your windows for months because of the cold; now that it’s spring, you can finally let the breeze in.

And you wake up to the breeze tickling your cheeks, whispering into your ear, then filling the whole room with the scent of it, of spring, and all at once everything smells of steeped tea leaves. Like a dandelion flower with a full head of seeds, a kiss on the cheek, Japan in the spring is a promise; the winter was long, but then spring came.

An old man at an intersection

There is an old man who stands guard at an intersection where a neighborhood road ends and turns onto the main street and every morning I pass him on my way to work. He wears a blue jumpsuit and a crossing guard vest and carries an orange baton, which he holds behind his back.

He’s a small man, short and stocky, and he stands with a slight hunch. His face is aged, lined with deep wrinkles that have set into his forehead and the outer corners of his eyes. He has a drooping face, wearied with time, but it’s gentle too and when he smiles his smile stretches into his cheeks, his eyelids turn upwards at the edges, and he looks almost like a little boy – a boy at the park, or at an ice cream shop, holding his mother’s hand.

In the span of several seconds, I approach the intersection where he stands, watch him greet the people passing – high school students on their bicycles, pedestrians walking their dogs – and then I pass him, smile, and he bows his head to me, smiles back, says good morning. Sometimes he’ll say “take care.”

One of these days, I want to stop. I want to pause at the intersection and ask him his name, where he’s from. I want to offer him a cool bottle of tea because it’s getting warmer out and ask him for his story – where did you grow up? what was your childhood like, your adolescence? who did you want to be? who did you become?

Maybe he’ll tell me that he was raised on a vegetable farm in a tiny village in Akita Prefecture, or Kumamoto, someplace far from the city. His father owned the farm and worked it himself and sometimes after school he – the old man – would help his father lay fertilizer, pick weeds, harvest the crops – turnips, eggplants, radishes. Sometimes when the harvest was good his father would bring in basketfuls of fresh radishes and his mother would simmer them in soy sauce and to this day he’s never had radishes as delicious as his father’s.

But for now he is the old man at the intersection and he is my favorite thing about the morning.

While in Okinawa: coffee on Zamami

Across from Zamami Island’s main port, there’s a neighborhood made up of several apartment complexes, a few guesthouses for tourists, and scattered homes with tiny backyards. Hidden within this tiny neighborhood are a handful of family-owned cafe/restaurants that I wouldn’t have known existed if I wasn’t looking.

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The first cafe my friend and I found was called Cafe Amulet. It had a sign outside that said it sold pasta and ice cream. We stepped inside. A bell rang as the door closed. A young couple standing behind the bar, who I assumed were the owners, greeted me welcome and motioned for us to sit where we wanted. I chose a table next to the shelves, which were stocked with plenty of books about travel, culture, and of course, coffee.

IMG_8748The young man brought us a cup of water and took our order. I couldn’t decide on a tea, so he offered me wine, even though it was 1pm. I opted for iced coffee.

IMG_8747For a while, my friend and I were the only people in the cafe besides the couple, and their little girl – who wandered around the cafe and took books from the shelf and read them at the bar while swaying back and forth in the swivel chair.

It was nice there, cozy and comfortable. We lingered after finishing our drinks and didn’t feel rushed to leave.

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A few people eventually came and went, all of whom – to my surprise – the owners knew by name. One person even brought the couple a gift (a bag of salt from the main island I think, from what I could hear), which the wife sounded pretty excited about. The way the couple interacted with the guests who stopped by made me want to stay in Zamami and become a local too, just to visit Cafe Amulet and hang out with the family and bring them salt. (And to drink wine at 1pm.)

In the end I decided against that, but here’s the address if you ever take a trip to Zamami Village and want to bring the family salt for me.

 

While in Okinawa: “smallest coffee shop in town”

The cafe was small – really small. True to its name, I suppose. I’d never been to a cafe the size of a walk-in closet before. I wondered about what kind of people frequent the “Smallest Coffee Shop in Town.” Locals, I’m sure… Maybe the owner’s close friends, friends of friends, wanderers stopping by to rest for a bit and share about how their weekends went.

There was no one there when I entered – I had to knock on the wall a few times, and then call out excuse me when, still, no one returned. I could hear jazz playing softly from a speaker somewhere near the back.

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A few chairs were lined up at the counter. I sat down at the one nearest me and waited. Kettles and coffee pots, stained and worn from use, sat on a gas stove against the wall.

It was a small space, but there was more than enough to look at; there were Okinawan hairbands for sale on a shelf beside me, jars of brown sugar crystals on the counter, stuffed rabbits sitting on the windowsill. I felt a little odd, sitting there alone, but comforted too. In a way, it made me feel like I was at a friend’s kitchen table, passing time while they finished preparing our meal.

A woman, who I assumed is the owner, eventually returned. She gave me a look when she saw me – I couldn’t tell what kind of look it was. Probably curiosity, or interest, or surprise maybe. Or, a mix of all three(?). She had crimped hair dyed light brown and was wearing a hat with a lace rim.

I greeted her good morning and asked for iced coffee. She poured her brew into a plastic take-out cup, handed me the cup and little cartons of creamer and sugar and charged 200 Yen. I hadn’t expected it to be so cheap – probably because I’d paid 600 for a cup of coffee at the cafe I’d gone to the day before, which was just down the street. The coffee was good too – strong, not bitter. I enjoyed it, and as I sipped my 200 yen cold brew I regretted that I wouldn’t have the chance to go back. But I’m grateful I stumbled upon it at least; it’s not everyday that I find a coffee shop – which happens to sell delicious, exceptionally priced coffee – that’s smaller than my bedroom.

While in Okinawa: our home for a week

A friend and I spent the last week of March in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. To cut down on the cost of the trip, we rented out an apartment, which turned out to be a better accommodation than we’d expected and a perfect fit for the two of us. The apartment was clean, spacious, well-decorated, and stocked with extra amenities like towels and dish soap, and in a way it made Okinawa feel a little like home – even though home was nearly 1,000 miles away. Here are a few pictures I took of the place when we first arrived!

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My Wednesdays

  • 8:10am
    • Arrive at school entrance
      • Put shoes in shoe locker
        • Slip on indoor shoes
  • 8:12am
    • Arrive at teacher’s room
      • Take off coat and headphones
        • Put lunch in fridge
      • Say “ohaiyou gozaimasu” to every teacher that passes
  • 8:15am
    • Warm breakfast in microwave
      • Eat breakfast at desk
        • Feel self conscious about eating breakfast at desk
          • Finish eating breakfast at desk anyway
  • 8:30am
    • Greet English teaching partner good morning
      • Talk about the lesson for the day
        • Designate roles
  • 8:34am
    • Wash plastic bowl
      • Attempt to find a space for bowl to dry on overcrowded rack where teachers keep their mugs
  • 8:38am
    • If time, make tea
      • Disperse water from hot water heater
        • Place tea bag in water
    • Drink tea and wait for bell to ring
  • 8:46am
    • Walk to English classroom at far end of the 3rd floor
      • Question why the English room is the farthest class from the teachers’ room
      • Consider taking the elevator
        • Remind self about the importance of exercise
          • Take the elevator
  • 8:50am
    • Turn on the heater
      • Set to 25 degrees Celcius
        • Argue with partner about the temperature
          • Compromise at 24 degrees Celcius
    • Greet students as they shuffle into the class
  • 8:52am
    • Start 1st Period
      • Teachers: “Hello everyone!”
      • Students: “Hello, Julia-sensei; Hello, *partner*; Hello, *homeroom teacher*!”
      • Teachers: “How are you?”
      • Students: “I’m … (insert sleepy, hot, cold, tired, hungry, happy, good.)”
        • Student lead for the week: “What day is it?”
        • Students: “It’s Wednesday.”
        • “How is the weather?”
        • “It’s … (insert sunny, cloudy, rainy).”
      • Teachers: “Thank you!”
  • 8:55am – 9:30am
    • Review vocabulary on PowerPoint
    • Review vocabulary on large flashcards
    • Review target phrase
      • This week: I want to be a (insert profession) because I like (insert reason).
    • Practice target phrase with class
      • Optional practice in pairs
      • Optional song
    • Play game to practice vocab and target phrase
    • Play another game to practice vocab and target phrase
    • If time, play another game to practice vocab and target phrase
    • Award game winners with cute stamps
      • (Students loves cute stamps)
  • 9:30am
    • End class
      • Teachers: “Goodbye everyone!”
      • Students: “Goodbye, Julia-sensei, *partner,* *homeroom teacher*!”
  • 9:36am – 10:20am
    • Start 2nd period
      • Repeat 1st period
  • 10:20am-10:40am
    • Return to desk during the 20 minute break
      • Make tea again
        • Drink tea
      • Talk to partner about non-work related things
  • 10:45am – 11:30am
    • Start 3rd Period
      • Repeat 2nd period
    • End 3rd Period
  • 11:32am
    • Turn off heater and lights and computer
  • 11:35am
    • Return to desk
      • Finish tea
        • Check school email
  • 12:07pm
    • Watch lunch for the teachers get distributed
      • Sneak glance at the school lunch meal for the day
        • Wonder what one of the ingredients in the soup is
  • 12:15pm
    • Warm up lunch in microwave
    • Eat lunch
  • 12:41pm
    • Wash plastic bowl
      • Attempt to find a space for bowl on mug rack again
  • 1:25pm
    • Realize lunch break is over
    • Listen to students clean the school
      • Hand out trash bags to students who request trash bags
        • Wonder how the students in charge of cleaning the English classroom are doing
  • 1:40pm – 1:55pm
    • Go to one of the first grade classes for “English Time”
      • Review vocabulary
        • Play game to practice vocabulary
  • 2pm ~ 3:30pm
    • Prepare materials for Thursday classes (3rd and 4th graders)
    • Review lesson plans
      • Review and finalize PowerPoint slides
    • Print lesson plans for homeroom teachers
      • Place lesson plans on homeroom teachers’ desks
  • ~3:30pm – 4:57pm
    • Pass the time
      • Reply to emails
      • Work on a blog post
      • Attempt to study Japanese
      • Read book from the school library
        • (Currently: the cartoon version of Anne of Green Gables)
  • 4:57pm
    • Put on coat
    • Say “see you tomorrow” to partner
    • Say “osaki ni shitsureishimasu” to passing teachers
  • 5:00pm
    • Put indoor shoes in locker
      • Slip on outdoor shoes
    • Leave school