Soba Up

Regular readers of Paperdoll will know that I have become rather cynical about life in Japan of late. After two and a half years here, the culture has slowly worn me down and it has become easy to focus on the bad rather than the good. Despite being a realist and on occasion a cynic, I do try to make the most of my circumstances so this plunge into negativity is rather unwelcome.

It’s lucky for me then, that my favourite teacher at school, Tennis Sensei (from the tennis club mafia), asked me to join her on a two day road trip to the north of Honshu to partake in the famous wanko soba noodle eating challenge last week. Tennis Sensei is around my parents’ age, but has a great sense of humour and spirit for life so we get on famously. A frequent traveller and always up for an adventure, I really feel like she is preview of what I will be like later in life.

Our relationship is so easy and comfortable these days that I didn’t think twice before agreeing to take this trip with Tennis Sensei.  Despite having avoided speaking Japanese of any sort since being ‘Tried and Tested‘ just over a month ago, I had no fears about having to speak Japanese for a whole two days with her…in fact I found myself looking forward to it. I don’t like that I have become so negative about life in Japan and I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to Soba Up and be reminded of all the upshots of life in Japan…

Up and Away

On the journey up to Morioka (home of wanko soba), Tennis Sensei surprised me with a stop in Hiraizumi to see the UNESCO World Heritage site, Chuson-ji Temple. Having not done any travel since spring break, it was lovely to be reminded of the history and constructed beauty Japan has on offer.  The visit was made all the more special with Tennis Sensei there, happily explaining to me the significance of every building and statue, since my kanji reading ability is no match for the descriptive plaques found on site.

To balance the visit to Chuson-ji temple, we also stopped in at the gardens of Motsu-ji Temple. Sadly, the beauty of the lake was somewhat diminished with earthquake damage still prevalent, even 18 months since the event. A pertinent reminder that the areas north of where I live are still suffering the effects of March 11th, 2011 and that these people still continue to rebuild their lives and their country.

Soba Up

Already starting to feel more compassionate about the country I reside in and the people that kindly allow me to teach their children, our destination provided the food and fun portion of the trip. Tennis Sensei has been telling me about Iwate’s famous wanko soba for the better part of a year, so it was amazing to finally partake in the eating challenge with her.

To sum up the challenge for those that have never heard of it (or engaged in it): You are seated seiza style at a table with various soba condiments and a designated waitress. Said waitress is there to top up your soba bowl every time you empty it…usually spouting encouragements such as ‘mada mada (you aren’t done yet)’ and ‘jun jun (you’re getting there)’. The waitress stacks the empty bowls next to you in columns of 15 to keep count of your progress. When you are fit to burst, you have to stealthily get the lid on your bowl before the ninja waitress can dump yet another soba shot in for you to eat. This should give you a fair idea of what it’s like…

My suspicions that Tennis Sensei is as competitive as me were confirmed when we sat down to eat. Her previous record was 32 bowls…which she cleared easily when she saw I was nowhere near finished at that point. We had been told that women usually average between 30-40 bowls, but Tennis Sensei only politely bowed out at 55…looking rather green at the effort. But she refused to let me stop…taking my lid away and joining forces with the waitress in getting my bowl count up. At 60 bowls I managed to outsmart both of them and got the lid on my bowl…signaling the finish of my effort…and the end of my soba eating days for good.

I consumed 60 bowls in 60 minutes…a far cry from the record of 559 bowls, but not bad…considering 15 bowls equals one normal sized bowl of soba. I even got a little plaque to commemorate the effort…just because I am a foreigner.

Up sized

After the post soba grumblings of two people who ate far too much and an overnight rest to let all those noodles settle, we started the journey home. Once again, we had a stop on the way home…this time at Genbi-kei Gorge, for some more food. This time it was dango, a famous Japanese sweet made from rice, but delivered with a twist…across the gorge from maker to consumer!

The delivery team (having spotted my blond hair…even across the gorge), kindly displayed an American flag over their balcony, played the American national anthem and sent me a free dango set for coming to visit them. Tennis Sensei and I didn’t have the heart to scream out that I’m actually Australian and so humbly accepted the gift and the accompanying applause and photographs taken from onlookers. These complete strangers had managed to make me feel so welcome and special in the space of five minutes…and given me some memories to last a lifetime.

Speaking Up

Tennis Sensei is my favourite teacher at school because she is infinitely patient with my slow Japanese and always takes the time to explain difficult concepts or new words in easy Japanese for me. Not only that, she is always genuinely happy to take time out of her day to come and chat to me. I’m never nervous about speaking to her and these two days were a great opportunity for me to get in some much needed speaking practice.

The conversation on our trip was never stagnant…we talked about everything and anything. Most amusingly, because we are so similar, topics often ventured into territory I would never dream of broaching with most Japanese people. I got all the behind the scenes gossip from the teachers’ room (who hates their job, who’s pregnant, who wants to be pregnant, who is stressed to the max…) and Tennis Sensei and I even exchanged our ‘Top Three Most Attractive Male Teachers’ list.

Surprisingly, Tennis Sensei also told me that most of the teachers desperately want to get to know me better but are all too nervous to speak to me, in either English or Japanese.  She told me that our head teacher in particular is very envious of the relationship I have with Tennis Sensei and would love to have more conversations with me. Armed with this knowledge, and my new found excitement for speaking Japanese again, I will be making great efforts to talk with all my teachers when school goes back, and specifically our head teacher.

Onward and Upward

Last week’s trip with Tennis Sensei was so positive and has really helped me get back into a better frame of mind about my remaining months here in Japan. Most days I feel like I am swimming upstream in this culture and I feel like I am up against it more often than not. It’s easy to start ignoring the good and focus on the bad, but just a short break spent with a true friend, seeing all the beauty this country has to offer has helped me soba up.

I had forgotten the warmth and graciousness of Japanese people and this time away has helped restore my faith in why I am here, doing what I do. Japan is full of people who are generous of heart and truly want to make foreigners feel welcome. I feel ashamed that I had started to close off from life here, but thankfully Tennis Sensei helped me wake up to myself and now I can get back to enjoying Japan again…

Caught Between an Earthquake and a Tsunami (and a Potential Nuclear Disaster)

Today is March 22nd, 2011, exactly one year since my arrival in Japan to start my life as an ALT in Hitachiomiya. 11 days ago, that Japanese life was shaken up…literally. On Friday, March 11th, the east coast of Japan experienced the fifth largest earthquake ever to go on record and shortly after a tsunami, which ripped through Miyage prefecture…closest to the epicentre of the quake. As I now sit in the comfort and relative safety (has to be said…there were floods here only a few short weeks ago…) of my parents house in Australia, I feel the urge to document my experience of the earthquake and the week that followed…
Friday March 11th Now, looking back, I can’t tell you what happened on this day before 2:46pm, when the earthquake hit. I know I had classes that day, but I can’t tell you how many or what grade and I can’t even tell you what I was doing when the earthquake started…other than to say I was sitting at my desk in the teachers’ room. While my 1st and 2nd year kids had to suffer the earthquake in their 2nd floor classrooms, I was at ground level when the first tremors shook through the school. One of only a few teachers in the teachers’ room, I didn’t really pay much attention when my desk began to move a little. I just assumed it was one of our regular shakes…but then it kept going…and going…and seemed to be getting a little bigger.

Before I could look up from what I was doing, Isono Sensei was at my desk, grabbing my arm and telling me we had to get outside. Having never had earthquake training, I followed her lead and ran with her and the other teachers out to the car park between our two school buildings. JJ informed me afterward this kind of move is not recommended as there can be falling debris from the exterior of buildings…whoops. We stood there and watched as the cars began to rock back and forward, cracks formed in the buildings and a water tank burst, spilling water into the car park with us.

Isono Sensei clung to me as she lost the ability to stand…her legs failing her as the reality of what was happening sunk in. We were experiencing an earthquake. A serious earthquake (we later heard it was somewhere between a level 6.0 and 7.0 magnitude in our area). While I stood with a handful of teachers outside, we could here the screams of the kids still in their classrooms as the earthquake got bigger still.
After what seemed like the longest few minutes of my life, the earth started to shake less and the buildings became still again. We all yelled for the kids and remaining teachers to get out (not that they would have been able to understand my English…but I am sure they got the urgency in my voice!) and everyone ran for the soccer fields.

Head counts of the students were carried out and the teachers hovered over them like protective mother hens. Having said that, many of the kids were distraught…crying and screaming with every aftershock we felt…but very few teachers offered them sympathy. In true Japanese style, the kids were told to toughen up…no talking or even toilet breaks were permitted. I could do little to help them as Isono Sensei and now one of our lunch ladies clung to me for dear life, exclaiming over and over how shocked they were and how scary it was. I couldn’t move an inch as my clearly stronger and taller gaijin body was being used to give these women a sense of stability. I’m pretty sure the kids thought it was me who was the complete wreck though, with the Japanese women having to comfort me…
Somehow, amidst this human knot, I was able to free a hand and send a quick message to Mum and my sister, letting them know what happened and that I was OK. No one can ever judge me for my attachment to my iPhone again, after that thing saved my family and friends from three days of worry as soon after I sent the message and posted on facebook, all phone coverage was lost and so was power and water.
After about 45 minutes of waiting around with the kids, the teachers had a conference and agreed to get the kids home safe and call off school for the rest of the day. Best thing I had heard all day, as we were freezing on the field as the sun went down…and I had just started to wonder how my apartment had fared in the rumble.
I was promptly sent home and after a 20 minute walk with my bike (no way was I getting on two wheels with those aftershocks), I got back to my apartment to survey the damage. it was pretty bad. It looked like someone had ransacked my place in search of drugs and it was the first time (but definitely not the last) through the ordeal I was brought to tears.

The rest of the afternoon was spent checking in on the other ALT’s…everyone was safe, but reported about the same amount of apartment damage…and none of us had power or water. Hana was fairing a little better in Yamagata though with a battery powered heater and running water to keep her going.

Ben, Lara, Giles, Jay and I camped out in my apartment for the evening, sharing our stories of the day by candlelight. We ate rations of potato chips and chocolate, kindly gathered by Giles and Jay at one of the local convenience stores, then went our separate ways to catch a little bit of sleep between frequent and sizable aftershocks that carried on throughout the night.

Saturday March 12th

We woke up to find that things hadn’t changed terribly much overnight…still no water or power and therefore no contact with the outside world. Realising that this might be the case for many mornings to come, Lara, Jay and I decided to scout for food and water at the grocery stores in town to increase our ration supply. An hour in line at the front of ‘The Bird Store’ with other locals gave us a few bags of apples, water and cup noodle to tide us over for a little while. We reconvened as a group and the sight of a hand written message from Mieko on my door saying ‘Are you OK? Please come to my house. I have food.’ prompted us to quickly pay our adopted Japanese mother a visit. We spent a couple of hours chopping bamboo, making a fire and cooking up a hot feast of rice, ramen and sweet potatoes for lunch.

With hot food in our bellies, JJ, Lara, Jay, our new addition Genna (from Hitachiota) and I decided to grab some more rations (i.e. alcohol) and head to Hana’s house with the promise of a heater and water for the evening. At least we would have each other for company and entertainment, right?! A night likened to that of a teenager’s sleepover ensued…the only differences being alcohol, our ages and the continuing aftershocks. Some big enough to make us sit up in bed and wonder if we should bolt for the door.
Sunday March 13th

Still without power, our technology dependent group were edgy on Sunday morning. A walk down to the river was suggested and we indulged as Japan graced us with a warm 17 degree day in which to enjoy it. Our troop headed to the water with books in hand and while the others read, I found myself snoozing in the sunshine in an attempt to make up for lost sleep. My nap was rudely interrupted by JJ…announcing that power had come back on. I have never seen six people move so fast in all my life. Before we knew it, we were back at Hana’s apartment and lamenting at the fact she didn’t seem to be one of those fortunate enough to be reconnected.Inspired though, us Omiyans and Genna headed back home in the hope that power had been restored there…which it had! We were connected to the world again and quickly contacted our families as top priority. On the flip side, being connected to power again meant that we could see the news and reports of the damage in Miyage…and even more horrifying, the nuclear power plants in Fukushima. Just when we thought the worst was over, a potential nuclear threat faced Japan. Not ready to deal with that reality just yet, or blindly hoping for the best, Jay and I decided to escape our situation for a while and watch a movie. Giles joined us part way through and for a few short hours things seemed normal again.

Monday March 14th

Jay and I woke to find we were without water again…and now it was starting to bother me. As a person who showers at least twice a day, I was well and truly feeling unhygienic at this point…three days after my last shower. We finally caught a break though when our wonderful neighbour next door tapped into some magical supply of water in his yard (we still don’t know if it was a well/bore or the mains), hooked up a hose and told us to help ourselves. While the water wasn’t drinkable it was good enough to wash in and that was all I needed just then.
So with the kettle boiling, another pot of water on the stove and Jay making a few trips downstairs to refill our water bottles, I had a makeshift shower from my itty bitty bathroom basin. I even managed to wash my hair and shave my legs…I felt like a new woman.
Giles added to this happiness by announcing that evening that a ramen shop had reopened in town. With the promise of another hot meal and a beer, we all walked to the said ramen shop for refuelling. Nuclear disaster? What nuclear disaster? Things seemed to be returning to normality.

Tuesday March 15th
Having heard that Mito was fairing better than Omiya in the power/water stakes, Lara, Jay and I decided to make the 40 minute drive there to continue the process of renewing our visas…and hopefully get another good meal. Mito did not disappoint and while we marvelled at the damage in town (far worse than Omiya), we were treated to MOS Burger lunch, flushing toilets and for me…another year on my visa.
Back to Omiya and back to reality though…still no water. With the authorities still no closer to giving us an answer on when water would be restored, I felt the need to stock up on bottled water. If we had to survive on cup ramen for the next few weeks, we had to be prepared right?! I had the brilliant idea to raid the vending machines in our local area for supplies. Supermarkets were only rationing out one or two bottles per household which wasn’t nearly enough for my liking.
Someone had thought of my brilliant plan beforeme though and after hitting up two vending machines nearby and finding them pillaged of all water, I began to despair. But in a moment of fortune, I discovered that the three vending machines near my local book store hadn’t been hit! So I stood there with my small change, taking as many bottles as I could fit into the basket of my bike. Feeling relieved, I relayed my success story to Lara and JJ and they went back to finish what I started and bled those vending machines dry…Later that day, more good news…JJ had water again! In a very gracious move, he offered his shower to all who needed it…and we all accepted. JJ had decided to fly back to America the next day so we knew it was our last chance to make the most of his plumbing (so to speak).

Before we headed over to JJ’s place though, I skyped with Mum and and my sister in Brisbane. They had been hearing the continued and somewhat sensationalised news about the nuclear reactors in Fukushima and were worried about my safety. In a very tearful conversation, Mum begged me to think about coming home, if only for a short while. Seeing my family so worried and upset really hit a chord. Jay was feeling a little pressure from his family too and with JJ, Lara, Ben and Nick all deciding to leave, we started to entertain the idea too.

Wednesday March 16th
The day started at 7:30am with a two hour line up for gas. Lara, Jay and I bunked down in the centre of Omiya behind 72 other cars (I counted) debating what would be our next move. Jay and I were still undecided if we would leave Japan while Lara struggled to decide on when to leave. Hana called Lara saying she was driving to Mito that morning. Lara was offered a seat in the car which would allow her to get to Narita airport by lunch. Given that her other transport option to Mito (Jay & I) wasn’t really a sure thing, Lara made the emotional, but sensible option to go with Hana.

Five minutes after Lara got out of the car, Jay and I made an unsaid pact: we both go, or we both stay. We agreed that if it was just us, we would stay, but it was for our families we felt we should go home…for their peace of mind. So after many tears (from me) and reassurances (from Jay) we decided we would leave Japan and the life and people we love so dearly. But, the only way we could both bring ourselves to do that was to agree to buying return tickets…we needed a date we would be back in Japan.
After we got gas, Jay dropped me home to pack and he went to pack his bags in Daigo. A few hours later he was back, we were telling our families and we were booking fights…me for Australia, Jay for Canada.
While Jay was in Daigo, I went up to my school to grab some books and see the teachers. It was really hard to go there, but I’m so glad I did. My principal and about 10 other teachers were there. They pounced on me when I rode up, ‘Are you ok, are you ok?’. After I reassured them I was fine, I told them that I had made the decision to go home because my family were worried. In the typical Japanese way of understanding and compassion, my principle nodded and said ‘I think it’s best for you to go home’.
I explained in the best Japanese I could muster, that I didn’t want to leave and that I would definitely be back. My favourite English teacher, Omori Sensei was there and we shared a few tears together about my departure. Rather cheekily, I asked her in English if it was too dangerous to go in the buildings. ‘Oh yes, we can’t go in, it’s too dangerous’. To which I replied, ‘Oh that’s a shame. This might seem silly, but I was hoping to get my Japanese books to study at home…if I can’t be in Japan, I want to keep studying’. Omori Sensei…’Oh no, that’s fine…let’s go in quickly together!’ Bless her…now I have kanji and grammar to tide over my need for Japanese at least for a little while…
When Jay and I left Omiya around 4pm that afternoon, we were the last ALTs left. Ben and Nick had fled to Nagoya the day before, now Hana, JJ and Lara were gone. I had also been contacted by both Giles and Jeff earlier to say that they were headed to Mito together…Giles to meet with his girlfriend Nozomi and Jeff was taking his wife and little boy further south in Japan.
After around a 4 hour drive, with a pit stop for a greasy dinner at the Golden Arches (we saw three up and running in Mito) we made it to Narita Airport and rendezvoused with JJ and Lara. We spent the night camped out on the floor of Terminal 1…yet another restless night of sleep despite only one aftershock. Note: sharing one blanket between two people does not make for a good bed!

Thursday March 17th
We waited for our flights to leave Narita after a sandwich breakfast…Jay first at 3pm, JJ next at 4pm, then Lara and I flying out around 8pm that night. It was then that I really started to think about being home and having to say goodbye to my friends who I had shared the last week and this experience with. It had been a rough five days, but safety was now only 24 hours away. Every bone and muscle in my body hurt and I was emotionally drained.
The boys were of course typically calm and unemotional in their goodbyes…leaving Lara and I a mess after their departure. We made a move over to Terminal 2 and spent the day messaging our families, eating our last Japanese meals and keeping an eye on the queues for check in and customs.

By 7.30pm when Lara was boarding, I was spent. I tried to hold it together as I bid her farewell…knowing it would be quite some time before I would see her again. Lara had decided she would not return to Japan and that knowledge hit me after she left me at the boarding gate and I melted into a puddle of tears. Half an hour later I was sitting on the plane and all I could think about was hugs from my family, a hot shower and a bed.
Friday March 18th
Jetstar delivered me into the Gold Coast airport around 9am after an unscheduled stop in Osaka. Usually such a delay would have irritated me, but I was pleased to hear that the detour was for the sake of the cabin crew…the airline insisted that no cabin crew would be staying in Tokyo while the east coast was unstable. Instead opting to change cabin crew in Osaka.
I was greeted from the plane by a balmy Queensland morning and a tearful, but very happy mother. Oh and a nosey ABC reporter who requested an interview…which I politely declined. She had Buckley’s chance with tears running down my face after an 11 hour flight, seven days with little sleep and three days without a shower!
Having been back in Australia for almost a week now, I am still processing what happened. On the whole I am OK, but I’m not sleeping well and having a lot of nightmares. I miss Japan and it is hard sometimes to be with people who didn’t experience the earthquake. Many people don’t understand why plan to return early April, but I don’t expect them to.
Japan is my home at the moment and all the friends I have made in the last year are experiencing one of the hardest times of their lives. I am anxious to get back, to help them rebuild, to try and bring a sense of normality back, but most of all to mourn with them as they grieve the loss of so many lives and the destruction of their peaceful existence.