Posted in Working and Living in Japan

Time to Say Goodbye

Living in Ibaraki for three years, I felt like a bit of a traitor for leaving. Itako gave me some amazing experiences, and showed me how to become a better person through those experiences. I gained so much from teaching my students, and I hope that what I taught them will somehow stick in their heads despite what may come. I am proud of them, every single one.

I look back with critical eyes when it comes to my teaching methods. This class was better than this class. How much did I do wrong? God, I hope he/she/them get into the high school they want. I messed up more than a few lessons. Will that matter? Did I do something completely wrong? Please, I hope if nothing else, I can’t be the reason they don’t English.

Ms. Nesaki, the English teacher I worked with in Itako 2nd, told me once, “That’s how a good teacher thinks. You worry about the students. You care. Sometimes that enough, deshou?”

I want her to be right. If my kids can think of me fondly, that’s great, but I’d rather them have the knowledge I tried to cram into their heads over memories of me. If even one of them can remember present-past or how to do future tense, I’ll consider it a job well done.

I know I couldn’t have stayed there, not another year. It’s not the students, teachers, or schools’ fault either. I just got worn down from the curriculum, the constant battle between what I knew was correct English and what the textbook told me to teach. I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing every single year, like an endless loop of hodgepodge “English.”

I’m going to miss the people the most, and I just know it. The friendships and other relationships I cultivated over this three year period were usually hard-won, requiring that I try to communicate with them however I can, whether through language or exaggerated gestures. Some were easy, usually with people who could speak English fluently, but even with Japanese on my side it felt like it took so long to discover little gems hidden within my co-workers. Even just thinking about the lady at the 7 Eleven who I saw every other day, who I talked with about this and that but nothing important. I’m sad to think I won’t see her again.

My awesome Itako crew!

I keep trying to tell myself I’m not leaving Japan, so it’s not the same. Yet, I know that even being two hours away will mean that I can’t see these people every weekend or even once a month. I’ll have to just try and go back when I can, and enjoy that time in the moment.

I’m going to miss the Ibaraki JETs, too. The Drunken Duck memories; the trips to Gunma, Hokkaido, and Tokyo; to even the JET Meetings in Mito once a month. I met so many awesome people in such a short amount of time on the program, and they’ll always mean so much to me.

Now, I’m moving onto a bigger city, called Machida.  My new  job is teaching adults instead of kids at COCO JUKU in Yokohama. I’m a little nervous about it, but I hope that since they’re giving me a full five days of training I’ll be able to figure it out fast. Still, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Thank you for everything Itako, JET, and friends. I hope to see you again somewhere, someday soon. Take care!

Thanks for the great memories, everyone!




Posted in Working and Living in Japan

This Weekend Only! Special Events at the Itako Iris Park

This Saturday and Sunday (June 20th and 21st), Itako will hold two special events for the public at the Itako Iris Park.

One of the events is called the Milky Way Iris Bride Ceremony. At this event, hundreds of bright blue LED lights will be placed in the river alongside the iris park. The Iris Bride will then go down the river in the boat. The lights are really beautiful and cast a cool, aqua glow in the night. With these lights, the idea is to place the bride in a river reflecting the stars from the night sky, as if she’s floating through the heavenly sight herself.

Milky Way Iris Bride


The Milky Way Iris Bride send off will commence at 7:00 p.m. (19:00), but be sure to get there early because the crowd gets really big before the event.

Also, we will have a candlelight ceremony called the “Suigou no Akari,” which in English translate to “The Beautiful Riverside Illumination.”


The park will be filled with hundreds of candles inside of cups that have pictures drawn on, wishes/ prayers written on, or people’s names and organizations written to show their support for the event. If you come during the daytime on Saturday, you can have a chance to make your own candle as well! This event will go from 5:30 – 9:00 p.m. (17:30-21:00).

If you are close and in the area, please head on down! I highly recommend these events for couples. This weekend is going to have a really romantic atmosphere, so if you have a special someone and want to do something nice together, Itako is the place to go!

Some Rules about the Park

The park is a no smoking area, but all the restaurants and bars around the park are smoking friendly. However, the City of Itako would like for people not to smoke near the iris flowers because if the flowers catch on fire it will be a big problem. If you do smoke, feel free to do so at one of the nearby establishments, thank you!

Please do not leave trash at the park! The litter is not just unsightly, it also damages the plants, so please take your garbage with you and throw it away. There is a nearby 7 Eleven where you can take your trash or you can take it to Itako Station where there are many trash bins.

Do not touch the Iris Princesses, Staff, or Characters (City Mascots)! We have had a few problems with people in the past inappropriately touching the Iris Princesses and female staff in the past, and so for protection touching us and the ladies is not allowed. If you have children, they are allowed to shake hands and play with Ayame-chan or the other characters at the park, but adults are asked to please not pat or tap on the heads because it can hurt the people inside.

Thank you for your time!

Posted in Working and Living in Japan

Sports Day!

In Japan, Sports Day is a big event for elementary and junior high schools. In Japanese it’s called an undōkai (運動会), and it’s usually held on a Saturday or Sunday. Most schools that I know do it on a Saturday, at least all of my schools in my area do. Usually, the Sports Day is chosen by the city’s Board of Education, so then all of the schools under that jurisdiction will have Sports Day on the same day. Itako 2nd and Hinode JHS usually have their Sports Day in May/ June. Some schools schedule their sports days during cooler months, but in my area we are in the heat and sun all day long. This year I went to Itako 2nd Junior High School’s Sports Day.

Sports Day is a really important event for the schools. About two or three weeks before, students will practice their chosen sport events (some are chosen by the students and some are considered “traditional” and chosen by teachers at the school). My students would at first just practice for the event during P.E., but a few days preceding Sports Day we had half days devoted to rehearsals for it. Students will have their tamaire to practice for as well as their sports events. Tamaire are performances by the school band and presentations by various school clubs as well as individual and group competitive events.

Students and teacher at the schools will get divided into team colors. My school had red, blue, and yellow. I’m not entirely sure how they divide up the students into each team, but they are grouped together about evenly with students from all three school grades. They will each get about two or three teachers that are their coaches for the Sports Day event. I was on blue team this year because the English teacher in charge of me, Nesaki-sensei, was also on the blue team.

Kanazawa-sensei, the brass band teacher, standing beside the blue team’s sign.
The blue team dragon sign.

The teams compete during the events to collect points through victories. Whichever team has the most points will win a trophy.

And that’s part of one of the reasons the event is important for the students. The parents come to the school to watch their children at the event. As a part of Japanese culture, the children are a reflection of their families, so when the kids win then the whole family wins. The losing teams can get upset, because they feel like they’ve let down their parents, and also their teachers, for not succeeding. However, most parents and teachers just brush it off and tell their kids it’s fine to lose if you tried your best, at least they do at my school.

The yellow team lost this year.
Not even a dragon could save them.

Every team also compete for another trophy: the Best Dance Trophy. Every team memorizes and practices a dance that they must perform in front of family and friends. They get judged by the PTA, the Principal, and others for who did the best show. The kids enjoy this part the best, I think, because it can be a lot of fun to choose the music and the dance moves together. This year, the red team won the best dance.

Some of the sport events for Itako 2nd were the running relay, the three legged race, tug-of-war, an obstacle course, and the “grab the color” game where boy students put a smaller boy on their shoulders. All the boys are wearing helmets, and they try to grab a colored piece of fabric off another boy’s helmet. This event terrifies me, because without fail every year someone falls and gets hurt.

Students doing a kind of obstacle course race.
See?! Kids be fallin’ all over the place.

Sidenote: If you’re wondering why the faces are covered, it’s because I’m actually not legally allowed to show pictures of my students online, as in blogging, Facebook, or any kind of social media. I can only do it if their faces are unrecognizable and their names on their shirts not seen. High school ALTs can usually take pictures and post them wherever and no one cares, but most elementary and junior high schools forbid it. They are trying to prevent possible perverts from tracking down the kids in the pictures. If you’re an ALT at those levels, be sure to ask permission before you post any and all pictures of your students as you could get into a huge amount of legal trouble if you don’t.

This year, the blue team won! We made it through with the most points and even did a victory lap. I was exhausted at the end, but it was all good fun. This makes it the fourth year for the blue team to win. Let’s see if they’ can keep it up next year!


Posted in Working and Living in Japan

“Everybody” Knows Me: The Pros and Cons as a Small Town Celebrity

When I first appeared in Itako, people gawked, stared, and even took some not so discreet pictures with their keitai (cell phones). I felt like I was on display in a zoo some days, with everyone talking about me in whispers here and there and everywhere. Thankfully nowadays everyone knows who I am, or if they don’t know who I am they know at the very least that I’m a teacher living in the city, the weird looks and double takes have decreased significantly. Still, the small town celebrity status can be really interesting to live, but other times it can be a bit stressful.

I love that all of my students know who I am. I walk home every day through throngs of cute little elementary school kids shouting, “Jessica-sensei! Hello!” I wave back and smile as I respond, “Hello! How are you?” They repeat back to me, “How are you?” because they don’t actually know what it means just yet. It’s so cute! I walk on by and head home. Home for me is scant minutes away from where I work at the junior high school. I live right across from the elementary school. On the weekends, I wake up to the sound of children laughing and playing instead of an alarm clock. It makes me smile when I get up to start the day.

When I go to my local grocery store these days no one really gets shocked to see me anymore. Some people will even ask me how I’m doing as I walk around the aisles. Sometimes I will run into my JHS students with their parents, which can be fun or super awkward depending on how the parents and students react to seeing me. On the other hand, it can be really fun to get the chance to talk with the people in my community, and even sometimes discover some of them actually learned English in university way back when.

Because of my small town celebrity status, sometimes I get discounts or service things done for me. When I went shopping for groceries at a nearby market at the Michi-no-Eki, a lady recognized me as a teacher and an Ayame Musume (Iris Princess) from last year so she gave me some free strawberries. I could lie and say that I didn’t eat them all at once, but lying is wrong, so yeah. Also, at a sweets shop I once bought a huge package of variety sweets for the men at Hinode JHS because it was Valentines Day and women at the office always give the male teachers sweets. The ladies at the store loved me for buying that much and also recognized who I was, so they threw in two ichigomochi (strawberry rice cakes) for free. I could once again pretend I didn’t those in one sitting…but I’d be lying.

Sometimes I even get complete strangers coming up to me. It was rather shocking to me when an older lady asked me straight up, “So you’re the American ALT? Jessica, yes? My name is ______ and I lived in Hawaii for many years. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I was so shocked it actually took me a minute to respond, for one reason because of her amazing English ability, and for another having known exactly who I was. I think I gave a half-hearted response like, “Oh, nice to meet you, too.” and then we moved onto some small talk.

And that’s one of the small problems of being a small town celebrity. Everyone knows who you are, and that means even people you don’t want to know anything about you. This problem can even be a bit dangerous. When I first got to Itako I went through a little bit of a scary situation with a man who followed me around a bit, kind of stalking me but not to my apartment or anything. Then, my predecessor Lauren told me that he’d done the same to her too and he did in fact know where I lived. That freaked me out a bit, so to this day my door is always locked up tight and my windows as well. He’s not bothered me for some time so I think he’s lost interest, but as you can imagine the dangers of a woman living alone in a foreign country by herself sometimes hit me hard and that was one of those times.

On a less dramatic note, because people know me they will report me if they think that I’m doing something “untoward” or “not benefiting of a teacher.” Many an ALT living in the inaka (countryside) areas of Japan will speak of a similar experience like mine, wherein a mother of a student told the school that I was drinking too much at a summer festival event during summer vacation. This was ridiculous for two reasons: 1) It was the summer vacation, and thus she had no right to tattle and 2) I was drinking with the principal of my school. A train attendant once called the school on me because I was heading off to Mito for a business trip and he thought I was skipping school. I was abolsutlely floored when my JTE informed me with a laugh, thinking it was funny. Meanwhile, I was flabbergasted that he actually phoned my school like I was some wayward child.

As a side note, in my town the train attendants do call up the schools if they see a junior high school student walking around outside of school. They will even approach the skippers and try to talk them to go back to school. It’s not that often that students miss school at the JHS level, but it does happen. High schoolers don’t fall under this strange system since attendance isn’t mandatory for them.

The fact is ALTs living in a small town should expect to be on constant surveillance. No where is safe from the peering eyes of the gossiping mother hens, and we will feel the weight of their gazes judging our movements no matter how slight the movement.

Due to the watchful eyes of the citizens of my community, I haven’t dated much in Itako because I felt too exposed to do it. News of something juicy like that spreads faster than a wildfire, and it doesn’t help that every man I’m seen with in public is automatically assumed to be my boyfriend/husband. I have several friends in and around the area that are guys, and on the weekends I hang out with them sometimes. It’s not unexpected for me to go to work that following Monday or Tuesday to have cute little inquiries about who I was seen with that weekend.

Another problem I face happens when I go clothes shopping. When I got here I brought over some clothes, but I soon realized I couldn’t just walk around in sweat pants and sneakers like I did in college. With everybody staring at me, I couldn’t blend in with the crowd in a frumpy outfit, and besides that I knew all of my clothes were old anyway. My wardrobe got revamped to a more nice selection with nice shirts and t-shirts with some cute pants or skirts instead of just blue jeans. Even though I’m a woman so I should stereotypically love shopping, I don’t, especially if I have to do it by myself. I can shop with other people and enjoy it because there are other people to distract me from the fact that everyone is staring at me as I shop and try things on. I know I should just shrug it off and continue onwards, but it’s a really weird experience to come out of a dressing room and everyone’s heads turn to stare at the new thing I’m wearing. I know I’m not really exposing anything, but dammit people let me change clothes in peace!

And dear Lord, the gym. I go workout at the Kashima Fitness Center two to three times a week now. I was doing it off and on for the past year…Alright fine, more off than on, but I’ve hit the gym hard for the past three months trying to get back in shape. The looks I got at the gym when I first went there were owl-wide eyes just full of shock and surprise. I started going with my friend Ai Muto back when she lived in Kashima, but she’s off in Russia so now I go alone. By the way, I highly recommend that if you want to join a gym in Japan to bring someone fluent in both English and Japanese because you can get price jacked without someone there to help you.

When Ai left, there was no buffer between me and the pointed looks from the people in the gym. I felt seriously self conscious because I was one of the few heavier set ladies going there. But the worst experience by far was when one guy about a year or so ago just watched me do my entire workout without even bothering to pretend to workout himself, which was highly uncomfortable. Over time, I built up a nice repertoire with the staff and regular attenders, so things like that don’t happen as much anymore. The staff people actually go over and talk to people so they’ll stop gawking at me, which is really sweet of them. Just recently I got up the gumption to try the specialized classes, like Zumba, Body Combat, and Hip Hop, and I’ve got to say that’s really helped to kill some of my kind of “mystique” and bring me down to a more approachable level for the gym goers. No one looks great after they’ve endured an hour of Body Combat, they just don’t, and you gain a sense of camaraderie for having survived it.

As an Ayame Musume I get even more recognition because of the posters around town and the Ayame Matsuri (Iris Festival) events. People all over the country come to the park, as in all the way from Hokkaido and Kansai for this event, so I’ve actually been featured on more than a few blogs. Luckily, though, I’ve yet to reach the unfortunate celebrity statues case where I have a stalker come to the park and take pictures of just me like some of the other Musume have. I have, however, had my tush pinched more than once by some random old man who drank one too many beers and doesn’t realize that my threshold for violence is something they don’t want to test. I have my American moments, and they usually come out in forceful bursts. Unfortunately, my job is to just smile and bear it.

However, I will admit that I sometimes abuse my foreign features and celebrity status to my advantage. I have been back to that sweets shop specifically because of the ichigomochi and the fact that almost every time I’ve been back I got a free one. The attention can be nice in small doses, too, and rather flattering. In America I was a kind of “plain Jane” character, but in Japan I’m a little bit exotic, in a way. I am not really a fantastic beauty by either country’s standards, but I don’t really want to be one anyway. Too much effort, mendokusai. Yet in Japan I stand out whereas in the U.S. I just blended in, and sometimes I miss the ability to be a wallflower, the small town celebrity status shoved me into the spotlight and challenged me into this new role. Although college helped to kill most of my ability to be shy, now I’m hardly ever shy around anyone (the biggest exception being an attractive men in a nice suit). In Japan I’ve really come out of my shell, and I owe it to this city for helping me to gain a new found confidence, even though it can be a small pain sometimes to handle it, it’s all a part of the living abroad experience.

Posted in Working and Living in Japan

Graduations, Spring, and New Life

Right now my life is going through a period of renewal. In March, my third years graduated from both Hinode Junior High School and Itako 2nd Junior High School, and next month a whole new set of first years entered the halls. Sakura flowers were blooming, announcing the arrival of spring. They came and went so fast that I feel like I didn’t get the chance to take enough pictures. On my Facebook newsfeed I saw that my old alma mater had its graduation this month, with the class of 2014 probably the last class I knew personally back in day. Lastly, I’m getting prepared in little ways here and there for the big move to Tokyo, arranging things so that when I’m gone my successor can take over with as minimal amount of trouble as possible.

The graduation ceremony I attended for Itako 2nd was on a Wednesday, much to my befuddlement. Usually graduations fall on Fridays or Saturdays so everyone can go out drinking afterwards to a nomikai (drinking party), but for some reason the Board of Education decided Wednesday sounded better. Since I was at Itako 2nd JHS that month, I went to their graduation and missed Hinode’s. However, I made sure that the third years at Hinode got my congratulations card in February. I made a cute little pink card with a message, a small picture of me, and stickers on it.

December - March 2014 210
Sorry, but due to legal reasons, I’m not allowed to show pictures of my students.
December - March 2014 206
Student work on display

In Japan, graduating from junior high school means a lot to students. Unlike in the United States, students in Japan have to take rigorous tests in order to enter high school. High schools also have different levels, and if a student gets into a top level school, then odds are good that student will go on to a great college. Getting into a top level college means being able to get basically your choice in career. Students really feel pressured in their third year of junior high school to study, study, study! After they pass a test, they can relax, but until then it’s very high pressured.

The 3rd Year sensei
The 3rd Year sensei

Also, after graduating from junior high, there is little to no guarantee they will see some of their best friends again. Some students might see each other again on break or maybe on the weekends, but that depends on if they can manage to make the time. I don’t have any students leaving town this year (that I know of), but last year a student moved in with relatives up in Mito to go to a high school there. If parents can afford it, they may even move so their child can go to a high level high school all the way on the other side of the country. Not many parents in my area can afford such a move, but it’s not unheard of in Japan.

On Wednesday, the ceremony was very formal. Students wore their freshly pressed school uniforms, entering into the gym with heads held high, no smiles on their faces (because serious business in Japan means no smiles). The strong masks crumbled when the students started crying when their names were called out to accept their diploma. Girls cried the most because it’s expected of them, but several boys did as well.

I will admit, I cried too. I knew these students back when they were first years. The school made a slide show for the parents to see with a first year picture on the left and a current picture on the right. I made it to the songs, and then I broke when the students started singing about never forgetting the memories they made here. I wept. Me! I didn’t even cry when I broke my wrist in sophomore year of college. Other teachers were teary eyed, so I wasn’t alone. I felt really proud of the students in that moment, and I couldn’t stop.

After that, I headed off to take pictures of my students. The first year and second year students made two lines outside the school’s front entrance, making a pathway for the third years to go through in the middle. Parents were at the end of the path with cameras ready. Everyone clapped and shouted, “Omedetou! (Congratulations)” as the third years walked down the line. I took pictures of them as they walked by and received a letter from a student who I talked with regularly after lunch. I even took a picture with her and many other students.

Going home that day, I noticed the sakura trees had little, tiny sakura blossoms. The beginning of the new year finally arrived. The sakura blossoms always make me think of dogwood trees. For a split second, I thought of Kentucky and the Dogwood Trail back in Paducah. I missed picks the flowers off the trees and tossing petals into the wind. Spring in both countries makes me feel nostalgic, strangely more so than any other time of the year.

Pretty blossoms!
Pretty blossoms!

I recalled my graduation from Transylvania University. My family, once a very rigidly divided structure of Dad’s family vs. Mom’s family, actually came together for it. I felt so proud walking up to get that diploma, elated at the prospect of moving all the way to Japan in just a few months time. It’s still hard to believe that graduation was three whole years ago today. My students think they’ll have all the time in the world to discover what they want to do, but I bet the time will fly just as fast for them as it did for me.

On that note, congratulations to the Transy class of 2014! I hope wherever life’s adventures take you, the memories you gained at university bring a smile to your face (and if all goes really well, a job or graduate school).

People back home are starting their new lives left and right. My good friend, Jessica Short, recently married the love of her life, Stacey Long. I am so happy for her and so sorry I couldn’t be there. Between the move and everything else tied to it, I just couldn’t afford to go. I hope that it was as beautiful as I imagined, if not more so. I hope her new start is every bit as amazing as she dreamed it would be. My other friend, Daniel Puthawala, recently got engaged to his long time girlfriend, too. Congratulations to the both of you!

I felt revitalized by all the changes going on around me. I’ve thrown my energy into preparing for the Tokyo move, rearranging the apartment, getting organized at my desk, writing up lesson plans with explanations for how to do this game or that worksheet. I want my successor here in Itako to come into my spot with basically all the materials ready for him or her, just like Lauren did for me.

And so, congratulations to my successor, whoever you are! You’re going to love it here. I just know it.

Posted in Working and Living in Japan

可愛い食べ物: All the Cute Foods!

Japan’s deep love affair with food presentation existed supposedly even before the Heian period (10th/11th Century ), making it one of the oldest art forms in Japan. Most people touring Japan will want to try out the common foods such as sushi and sashimi, but while those seafood cuisines are indeed as delicious as they are pretty, I actually prefer the presentation (and sometimes even performance) of the desserts.

The caramel paw prints are just the best!
Totoro and Pooh-san drawn by waiters at a Korean restaurant in Shin-Okubo.

At many restaurants in Japan, the desserts are given special treatment with toppings or syrups to create fantastically elaborate portraits or characters on the dessert or on the plate. They tend to fall away from the traditionally minimalist nature of Japanese cuisine, allowing for more explorations for how to use ingredients to create a more complex feast for the eyes.

Japanese cuisine in general uses seven methods of food arrangement, and how to use each method varies depends on the ingredients and chinaware.

  • Sugimori is a standing or slanting arrangement
  • Hiramori is a flat design with slices of sashimi placed vertically
  • Yamamori is mound-like
  • Tawaramori are blocks of food placed in a pyramid
  • Yosemori is gathered
  • Chirashimori is gathered but with space between the ingredients
  • Ayamori is woven (which is considered one of them more difficult forms to master)

Using these arrangements as a basis, chefs can develop their own styles of presentation. Red, yellow and green are integral colors for Japanese cooking, so balancing all three in a presentation makes the food look appealing and bright in Japanese culture. Lastly, a triangular (three-sided) shape on the plate looks quite pretty.

As you can tell in the picture below, the basics of Japanese cuisine are all there: Colors red, yellow, and green are laid out in a chirashimori style, but there’s also a space dedicated to an artistic rendering of a certain famous comic feline. What’s amazing to me is that this treatment is considered standard for most restaurants. Rarely, I find, does the presentation cost the customer extra money.

Garfield approves my choice in waffles.

The exception to that rule is when the waiter/waitress is a part of a themed cafe such as the Pirate Cafe I went to with my friends Emily and Megan. There the girls let you watch them draw the designs and characters on your food. They also sing or do some kind of pirate shows if you pay more.

We got to choose what kind of design we wanted on our food.

A small side note, at a theme cafe it’s generally alright to take a picture of the food and the restaurant itself. However, before to ask to take pictures of the the waiters/waitresses working there. Some places will allow it while others won’t. At the Pirate Cafe in Akihabara, we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the pirate maidens.

I chose a cat and freaked the girl out because she didn’t know how to draw one. Oops!

Also, while the food wasn’t terribly expensive, the table charges at themed restaurants can be pricy. Be sure to ask how much per hour it is to be at a table.

The kanji is for ‘pirate.’

Even at convenience stores, sometimes they will have some cute special edition sweets that you can only get at one specific chain for a certain amount of time. Sometimes they will have special edition things that are movie or anime tie-ins. Not so long ago, there was “Attack on Titan” gear and foods being sold at the 7-11 combinis, and Pokemon does its rounds through the stores every other month or so.

A delicious chocolate bear cake!

Most of the time the cute foods in Japan will not only look adorable but they will also be super delicious! I feel like in the U.S. I often had to choose between something that looked cute but probably tasted like preservatives and future cancer, and then the delicious foods that were just kind of slapped together with no real thought into how it looked. In Japan, I feel like I get the best of both worlds, both great taste and great art.

Posted in Working and Living in Japan

Only In Japan: Cute Construction Characters


Construction sites, while necessary, are some of the biggest annoyances on the road. They’re dirty, noisy, and cause a lot of trouble. Cars can get backed up for miles because of some city project or another, triggering road rage in even the most temperate driver. There’s nothing to be done about it, shoganai. We just have to resign ourselves to this irritating fate.

Unless you live in Japan, in which case there’s actually something to look forward to with construction. In many Japanese cities they have character road guides and blocks. In most cases the characters are animals or famous things associated with the city. For example, I often see the deer character in my city and in the city of Kashima. Kashima city’s character is the deer (shika). The city’s soccer team is even called the Kashima Antlers and they have a deer mascot.

The two characters seen in the picture below were taken at a construction site just outside my apartment. The deer is obviously from Kashima, but the giraffe was a new one. I asked a teacher why the giraffe and she told me that unusual or really famous cute characters, such as Doraemon or Stitch, are used to tell people that it’s a school zone or that there are children around in the area and to be careful.

The giraffe on the right is to warn people “CHILDREN PLAY HERE.”

In Kamisu, there are dolphins and bunny characters. I only saw the dolphin character once in the three years I’ve been here, but I’ve seen the rabbits many times. The rabbits come in about three or four different colors. I’ve seen them in yellow, pink, and blue.

Pink bunnies at a construction site near Kamisu City Hall
Yellow bunnies seen in Tokyo near the Emperor’s Palace

The idea behind them is to kind of soften the look of the ugliness that we often associate with construction. Instead of getting as upset as we normally would, the characters are there to distract from the stress of the situation and to make people think of adorable things instead.

Also, the bright colors are meant to alert people in either the day or night time to use caution on the road. The big eyes are meant to sort of shock you, because when people see the eyes at night they might think it’s a child or some kind of animal for a split second, and so hopefully drivers slow down around the work in progress.

However, some people in Japan want them removed because they’re too distracting and may actually cause accidents. The argument they put forth is that these characters make it harder for drivers to just concentrate on the road and instead get their eyes fixed to the cute bunny or deer instead. And so then, the distracted drivers won’t be able to react to a situation going on in front of them.

Personally I love them. They do make the long stretches of stop and go traffic in the midst of construction more bearable in my mind, so I hope Japan decides to keep them. I hope to see more of them soon!

Posted in Working and Living in Japan

Third Time’s the Charm: An Iris Princess Again

The Itako Iris Festival is on from today (May 25th) to June 29th. I’m only there on Sundays, but I have the honor and pleasure of serving with 15 other Iris Princesses this year who will be there more often than me. The Iris Princesses are at the park on Saturdays and Sundays from 8-5.

I am waaaaaaay in the back

Today was the perfect start to the festival. The weather was nice with the sun hitting the iris flowers just right, making them really vibrant. There are over one million of about 500 different kinds of purple, yellow, and white iris flowers at the park.

This festival has been around since 1952, when iris-lovers placed cut iris flowers in beer bottles as decorations in for the festival. Until 1955, the Itako area was built upon a system of canals. For that reason, when a new bride and/or her goods were to be transported to her new home (the husband’s family home) it was done using a Sappa boat. These traditional boats are still used in Itako as tourist attractions. People can ride in the boats and enjoy the beautiful scenery as they travel up and down the rivers.

And to this day, the Bridal Boat (Yome-iri Fune) wedding send of ceremony is performed with a bride at the Iris Park. After arriving at the ‘Itako Bride’ memorial, the bride will walk along the pathway to the boat with her matchmaker and the boatman, then the boat will set off. Often the groom will be waiting at the Wai-Wai Fantasy dock.

The other Iris Ladies and I spent all day posing for pictures and helping people find their way around our little town. I even helped out a few foreigners that came to the park, which has never happened on the first day before.

The park this year is selling some cute straps and plush goods, which they didn’t do last last year. I want them all!

The mini Ayame-chan character strap
The big plush Ayame-chan

On the weekends is the Iris Bride send off event. That’s at 11:00, 14:00, and 19:00 (but times are subject to change). There are several events during the festival, such as traditional Japanese dancing and mochi making. We’ve also got boat rides up and down the river that are quite fun.



By the way, the park is (semi) famous! It was featured on a recent Japanese suspense/ thriller drama on Fuji TV. They actually came to the city and filmed parts of it right here in Itako. Isn’t that cool?! I got to watch it tonight. It was kind of awesome to watch it and go, “Oh my God! I’ve been there!” I thought it was particularly cool because someone was even murdered in a river that I’ve been to (television murder, not real life, obviously).

It’s easy to get to Itako via the Kashima-Orai Line from Mito or the Suigo-Itako Bus from Tokyo station. If you’ve got the time, please come on down!