Taimatsu Akashi Fire Festival: Burn your fears down

Taimatsu Akashi Fire Festival:  Burn your fears down

By Erica Grainger

 “I did mostly good things, except light things on fire” (Mark Hoppus, Blink-182) 

When: Saturday night, 9th November
Where: Sukagawa

I have a confession to make. I have always, always been afraid of fire. When I say afraid, I don’t mean the small fear that’s inside most of us. I mean really terrified, irrationally so, to the point where I can’t even light a match or a gas lighter! Yes, it sounds a little funny, but I have
‘pyrophobia’ (fear of fire). As I told my parents when I was young, “Don’t worry, I’ll never become a smoker because I can’t light the cigarette.”

So, you’re probably wondering why on earth did I go to a fire festival? Well, firstly, it was time to battle this ridiculous fear, once and for all. Secondly, I was told by virtually everyone that I simply must go. So, I found myself that Saturday night on a train to Sukagawa with Katherine. She reassured me that there was nothing to fear and I discovered she was right. I had an amazing time and stayed on the right side of the barriers. It was great to see all my good chums at the festival, and we were kept warm by the towers of blazing fire and glory that burned brightly, only a few meters away. It was truly a spectacular sight to see and I would recommend it highly for anyone who’s never been. Although I must warn you, if you have pyrophobia, like me, don’t expect to be cured of it. I am still terrified of fire and I haven’t conquered this yet, but I’m working on it….one flame at a time!

Kenka Matsuri: Fight, Fight!

Kenka Matsuri:  Fight, Fight!

By Erica Grainger and Vivian He

When: Saturday 5th October
Where: Iizaka Onsen (not in the actual onsen – heavens no! Around the local town).

“A fight will ignite at the end of the night” (E. Grainger)

My mother had always encouraged me to attend such festivities since she’s from Hofu City, in a southern area of Yamaguchi prefecture. Anyway, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to follow my mother’s cultural advice. So, what happened I hear you asking?

Hmmm…where shall I start? The weather as usual was being disagreeable and quite temperamental, with light drops of cowardly rain, but that didn’t prevent us from having a jolly good time! We spent most of the day parading around the streets with a heavy shrine over our shoulders and singing, “Washoi, Washoi”. Some of us clearly couldn’t keep in time, perhaps some music lessons are in order? We also had the guidance of a mother hen figure, Hisako Kanazawa, who always seemed to be ruffling her feathers or ours with her various quirks. For example, tying balloons onto all our heads, so we bobbed along while we walked. Quite a funny sight to see! We even had the support (physically) of the Fukushima pro-soccer team. I’m still not quite sure how they slipped into our group, but one minute we were carrying the shrine, by the next interval (after a long break), they were balancing it over their arms as though it was light as a feather.

By the time we arrived back at the shrine it was late afternoon. Some of us had sore shoulders and muscles, but we were all still in high spirits with the knowledge that it was onsen time! A chance to get up close and personal with new friends and old friends, including Kanazawa-san (our mother hen), even she joined us in the women’s onsen!
Let’s just say that it was an unforgettable onsen experience!

Kenka festival was being held on the 5th October at the Iizaka hot spring area. We arrived at the Iizaka station from Fukushima city at 12:10 and were greeted by the people from Rotary Club who organized the event. The actual Omikoshi parade started from 1:30pm and it continued until 5pm. We all went to an onsen hotel called Yoshikawa-ya where a party was being held to celebrate the success of the event.

Dinner was served after the onsen and we enjoyed a set menu containing all kinds of yummy Japanese food! Mmm mmm!!! There was also an entertaining array of speeches and social chatter with the local Rotary Club. The evening drew to a close around 8pm and that’s when the festivities of Kenka fighting began. What a thrill it was to see and hear the smashin’ and crashin’ of shrines. At times it was a little dangerous and a few men were even injured and carried away in stretchers. Oh dear! Thank goodness yours truly was behind the barriers and from what I know, no JET or anyone we knew was harmed during Kenka time!

A huge thank you to Vivian, the International Association and the Rotary Club for organizing this amazing event. Kenka was a huge hit (excuse the pun)!

Camping in Aizu: A Chance of Rain

Camping in Aizu: A Chance of Rain


by Erica Grainger&Tony Villa

Through Erica’s eyes:
Good weather, good friends, good food and good wine. What else does one need?  The day began innocently enough, I remember feeling quite cheerful and excited, seeing old faces and new faces and even old faces on new bodies!  Amongst the new faces I met were Cat from San Francisco, Jess from Canberra, Suzy from the UK and Tony from Chicago.  Upon meeting Suzy, I found myself thinking, what a really fascinating background.  Cat and I got along like a house on fire, Jess is a fellow Australian, and then there was Tony…an intriguing chap from Chicago.  If he had been from New York, he could have been a replica of Tony from West Side Story,since they are both JETs, but I digress….

I found myself sitting by the river for most of the evening counting the spooky bats flying past and Caveman insisted that he had seen a wolf! Surely not a werewolf, I mean this isn’t a chapter from Twilight, is it?  Anyway, I was returning from the river with Jeremy, when I felt a few heavy droplets from above.  Without warning, those droplets turned into gigantic bullets of water that hit and stung me.  I felt like I was in a Shakespearean tragic-comedy and I was playing the part of one of those screaming lasses that loses her sanity. I was saying ridiculously mystifying things like, “Where’s our tent?” It had blown away! I panicked a little I admit, but the wind was literally blowing me away!  I felt like a drowned rat wearing a lemon coloured drenched dress! I was soaked to the bone and let’s just say it wasn’t my prettiest moment.  Steven came to my rescue and offered Merran and I a lift home with him and Xan.  Xan had the brilliant idea of visiting an onsen.  So from 10:30 til midnight we relaxed and recovered in the warm waters of Fujima Onsen in Aizu.  Aaah, this is the life I thought!  By 3am, I was safely tucked into my futon, in Iwaki. What a day, what a night, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way!

Tony’s tale:
The unforgettable evening started as I made my way from thekonbini to the campsite. The night was calm and beautiful as we got closer, little did we know there was a typhoon lurking around the corner.
As we arrived I was let down immediately as there was no camp fire burning, however that was quickly dismissed as we had great company, a nice river, and Cord and Ashley on the grill. There were many new and familiar faces, including a fellow breakfast club member, Suzy. I found myself distracted by a group of people making their way to the river and so I tagged along.
In the distance a distinct voice came tumbling into my ear, it had an interesting accent. Normally I am good with accents, but this one was one of a kind. Sure enough it was Erica Grainger, she then explained about her duality of her accent in a joyful manner. As I made my way back up to the campsite the wind started picking up, but I just brushed it aside. The smell of the food was too strong and my growling stomach was all I could think, hear, and care for.
As I was eating and standing around the grill the typhoon made its way into our camp. “Ouch………….” I felt a SMACK on my head. The wind was so strong it managed to knock off branches from the tree next to us. Yes, that’s right I said branches not twigs. The rain came soon after and it was coming from every direction, even side-ways!

The night ended in a frenzy, as everyone panicked and went home as the typhoon was too much to endure. Yet, there was one good thing about the typhoon: nobody went home alone that night. HECK! We all went home with something that night whether we liked it or not, and for all we know they are still in our cars, apartments, and even on our clothes… If you feel that chill running up your leg say “HI” to Mr. fuzzy wuzzy wittle ugly caterpillar for me.  ;P

A Year in the Life…

A Year in the Life…

by Erica Grainger

Looking back at a first year on JET

“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: that is the ideal life” (Mark Twain).  Those words ring true when I reflect on my JET experience so far.

erica_horseLooking back, it was only a year ago, but I can still remember arriving in the scorching hot summer of late July 2012 for Tokyo Orientation at Keio Plaza.  I was feeling a little hot and sticky (from the heat and humidity, don’t get the wrong idea) and was joined by hundreds of other new JETs, who were fresh off the plane and a little jet-lagged.  I think we were all feeling eager, nervous, excited, and overwhelmed to various degrees. There were no doubts or fears in my mind, just a sheer feeling of amazement, “Is this all really happening to little ol’ me?”  Indeed, I was one of “the chosen ones” as Xan once told me.

Those early months were full of new and exciting events in Fukushima and it was a whirlwind of constant self-introductions at my schools. I can’t remember how many times I uttered the words, “I’m Erica-sensei, I’m from Australia,” and the amount of times I got asked if I was Michael’s girlfriend.  “No,” we both groaned. We just happened to arrive together in Group A and teach at the same schools and live around the corner from each other…I suppose looking back it does sound a bit suspicious to those innocent young minds (not so innocent trust me).

From the very beginning I knew I loved JET and the JET community….well, they would grow to love me too (hopefully). One of the reasons was due to FuJET.  They ran so many fantastic events and encouraged everyone to get involved and socialize, forming close friendships and a sense of belonging and identity within Fukushima.  For example, who could forget such misadventures as: the Iwaki Beach Bomb and the rite of passage for new JETs (especially Iwaki JETs) – skinny-dipping at midnight.  Other events include the Nagano Soccer Tournament, where I probably befriended half of the opposing teams and met the infamous “growler/grabber”, she was a little scary I must admit!

My first Christmas in Japan, without my family was a very special time and non-traditional in everyway possible.  Firstly, Christmas eve involved a group sleepover (not how it sounds, trust me) and a ‘Cards against Humanity’ evening with lots of laughs and evil giggles with all my new Iwaki friends and Caveman, an honorary Iwaki JET!  Secondly, Christmas Day was celebrated at Baba’s, which meant a huge Indian dinner banquet with curry and chai tea.  My first Indian Christmas dinner in Japan!  It certainly was unforgettable for all the right reasons.

Throughout the year, there have been many amazing events and celebrations like Christmas that capture the essence of being a JET and the importance of friendship.  For instance, I was extremely touched and humbled when my closest JET friends and many other wonderful JETs joined me at Baba’s to celebrate my birthday in February.  Some of them even drove from Aizu and returned home that night! That night was one of the highlights of my JET experience, just being surrounded by some of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.  Thank you all for coming and celebrating with me.  I would love to do it again next year with you and the new JETs!

erica_with_xanFinally, what I’ve really grown to value during my time on JET is not just the friendships you make and the experiences you have, but what you learn through JET and the importance of being resilient to change.  I’ve lived overseas before, but never on my own and my initial plan was to stay for 1 year and return to Melbourne.  However over the course of my first year on JET, through thick and thin and trips to Hokkaido with Xan, Hong Kong, Kyoto, etc.  I’ve grown to realise that my new home away from home is Japan!  I simply know that Fukushima will always be in my heart.  There are far too many marvellous and special people to thank for making my first JET year such an incredible experience, but you all know who you are.  So, thank you all and welcome new JETs – you are all unique!

Mt. Fuji Torture Climb 2013

Mt. Fuji Torture Climb 2013

by Erica Grainger

fuji2013_1“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”  – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859).  That pretty much sums up our epic adventure climbing Mt. Fuji.   So where and when did this take place, I hear you wondering.   Here are the finer details:

When: Sat/Sun 20th & 21st July
Where:  Mt. Fuji of course!
Who: Too many wonderful people to list!
Why: It seemed like a good idea at the time….but I think some of us are regretting it now.  As Robert James Vidal (Caveman) tells me, “Fuji-san and I aren’t friends anymore.”

10 things I love about Fuji:


1)     “Sunriiise! Sunseeet!” – Erika Ehren

(The absolutely sublime, stunning view from the top! Simply breathtaking….I could go on, but I won’t bore you to tears)

2)     “Most intense physical experience of my life” (but worth every step of it) –Paul Sheen

3)     “Caveman bringing potato salad to eat with Erica’s barbequed body” – Jaime Vogenitz

4)     “Hot charcoal stamps at each station” – Erica Grainger (Although I nearly burnt myself, don’t ask!)

5)     “Glad it didn’t blow it’s load while we were on it” – Paul Sheen

6)     “I’ve gotta pee” – Caveman (the nearest toilets were at the top)

7)     The corn soup at the top was probably the best I’ve ever had” – Natalie Donohue

8)     “Learned to cut the Fuji climb waiting line successfully with the spider monkey technique: go on all fours, be fearless and good luck” – Judy Pan

fuji2013_49)     “We did it, now let’s go home” – Kristyn Atkins (my walking partner, however we stayed on the top for ages, til 5:30am)

10)“The best group of people to climb Fuji with” – Paul Sheen. (I would second that)

10 Things I hate about Fuji

1)     “No man left behind!  Except that one guy we left behind” – Paul Sheen (referring to Caveman’s disappearing act.)

2)     “Getting left for dead by two Eric/kas” – Caveman (it should be noted that Caveman was drooling and delirious when he uttered this)

3)     “Disappointing. I was expecting to kill and eat Erica G at some point and I got to do neither” – Jaime Vogenitz (ah well, there’s always next year….. Jaime’s probably thinking)

4)     “Having human cannibals as so called “friends” (Phillip, Caveman, Jaime)” – Erica Grainger (I suppose this gives new meaning to friends til the end. Although I survived!  I can’t decide if I’m relieved or petrified to have such “friends”. It seems that Fuji-san brings out the cannibal in some people.  Lesson learnt: I will NOT go back to Fuji with Phillip Caveman or Jaime.

fuji2013_25)     “What? There’s still more to go….it seems never-ending!” – Natalie Donohue

6)     “I don’t even care if I don’t make it anymore.  This is where I’m going to die” – Judy Pan

7)     “Stupid blanket shouldn’t tear like that.  Arghhhh!” – Phillip Torricke-Barton
(Phillip at the summit attempting to cover himself while Natalie and Paul try to take a nap)

8)     “The sleepwalking zombie stage for 3.5 hours when you descend Fuji-san and those evil torturous stones and rocks that kept falling into my shoes.  It felt like a descent into madness” – Erica Grainger

9)     “BEES! Aghhhh, the bees, aghhh….” – Caveman (was chased by bees and wasps while walking down the wrong side of Mt. Fuji)

10)“Never again!” – Erika Ehran (the first time she did Mt. Fuji was last year and then Erika climbed it again this year)

Finally, a huge thank you to Erika for being a terrific leader,
– Thank you Judy for your life saving bursts of oxygen,
– Thank you Jaime for not killing & eating me when I was weak and vulnerable
– Thank you Kristyn for being a world-class walking companion
– Thank you Phillip for bringing me stylish gloves
– Thank you Caveman for providing endless entertainment and staying so jolly and brave despite those tough moments and your near death experience!

Thank you to all the people that came on Mt. Fuji that I didn’t mention.  This torturous yet life-changing climb was one of the highlights of my JET experience.  Good luck to all the future climbers, I hope you have as much fun as I did!