Hanami, flowering viewing, is a popular event each year during spring time to witness the beautiful, pink return of spring to Gunma’s mountains and valleys. However, the Kanra Castle Town Obata Sakura Festival is not your ordinary hanami experience. An annual event, this festival exists to celebrate the beloved sakura blossoms, while simultaneously paying tribute to the era in which Obata was created. Hanami featuring a Musha Gyoretsu—a warrior parade.
Every year, the Kanra Board of Education invites Gunma ALTs to participate in this remarkable parade. I had jumped at the chance to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A few days before the event, I received some paperwork for the event.
Among the package was a letter written entirely in Japanese, addressed to, “Maja Thoenes, foreign warrior.”
On March 31st, all 11 “foreign warriors” rolled into the freezing, drizzling Kanra Junior High School Gym parking lot. Filing inside one by one, the gym seemed to give off a warm, orange glow. Every inch of the floor was covered with weapons and neatly folded piles of clothing: bright red and pink yukata with spears, embroidered green and gold kimono, and full suits of obsidian samurai armor that stood like little mountains amongst the fabric plains. Although only eight in the morning, the gym was already brimming with people, and they collectively turned around to watch the stunned foreign warriors walk inside.
We found our piles of clothing and weaponry, and after a while, the rental gear workers were ready to help us dress. We started in our long underwear and put on two-toed tabi socks and sandals. Over that, a simple white robe, with a plain but mighty obi around our waist restricting blood-flow to our brains. Next, the top—it was heavy and shiny, with wide sleeves that hid our hands. We stepped into the pants made of the same fabric, creating the classic image of the warrior pant-suit of the samurai. These were tied around us at waist again, and we were wrapped a second time with another thick obi. Our weapons were next: a long katana with a leather belt around our hips, and a knife in a sheath that was forced in between the folds of the two obi. For the finishing touches, we tied the tassels on the neck of our robes, and we donned a stiff, black mesh hat. Some of us awkwardly tried to unsheathe our katana, while others snapped quick selfies and practiced their finest blue steel faces. We could hardly move or breathe in all the gear, but no doubt we looked as glorious and badass as we felt in our hearts.
Once everyone was dressed, we walked from the gym to the nearby Rakusan-en, a lovely Japanese-style garden built by the son of Oda Nobunaga. Nearly a hundred other procession participants were already there, taking photos in front of the koi fish pond and hiding from the sprinkling rain under the thatched roofs of the tea houses. After a short word from the mayor and an introduction of two visiting comedians, all the participants lined up into formation for the procession.
Cannon fire from the top of the hill announced the festival’s start. Just as we took our first steps, the sun came out.
Observers stood along the sides of the street with their cameras ready as we paraded through in groups, sporting dozens of different types of historical Japanese clothing. Heavily armored palace guards with towering kanji helmets and tiger fur coats, long red-robed philosophers with skyscraper hats, elementary school-aged peasant guards wearing bamboo sandals, historical royalty wearing colorful veils, and even horses bridled with teal masks, yellow tassels dancing on their noses. In the middle of all of this, the foreign warriors, marching and smiling amongst the waving flags and river of robes. We greeted the students, teachers and strangers that surrounded us on every side. The procession was occasionally paused so that we cheer together: Ei, ei, oh! Ei, ei, oh! Although the sakura overhead had barely begun to bloom, the warmth in the wind was undeniable—spring was here, and it almost felt like we were leading her in.
We marched from Rakusan-en to Kanra Obatahachiman, a humble shrine resting between tall, noble pine trees. We took a break in the sun for some green tea, apple juice, and pictures before getting into formation once more for the trek back to the gardens. The festival had been waiting for our arrival, a taiko drum team welcoming us to our positions in front of a large stage, set up before an ocean of observers. The mayor gave a small speech to announce the official start of the Sakura Festival, and we gave our “Ei, ei, oh” war cry for a final time.
Although the procession’s journey had only been a little over two kilometers, we were exhausted. Back in the gym, we stripped off our samurai gear in only a fraction of the time it had taken to put it on, covering the floor in fabric once more. We inhaled our bento while chatting about the parade—we had heard lots of compliments in English, such as “beautiful” and “handsome,” but we agreed that “Can you teach me English?” in Japanese had been our favorite. We had laughed and said that we could.
Although I doubt the historical accuracy of including a bunch of overseas English teachers in cultural celebration such as this, there was no doubt that the Kanra community was delighted by our involvement, and we were so honored to be a part of it all. The residents of Kanra are so friendly and outgoing—we were asked to take a staggering number of photos, and so many people went out of their way to ask us about ourselves and complement our awesome get-up.
It turned out that the Kanra Board of Education had sponsored our participation costs, including our lunch, so the entire experience was free of cost. The Kanra ALT supervisor even went so far as to follow us around during the procession, carrying our wallets and keys and making sure we all got back safely. We are so thankful for the kindness and generosity shown by the Kanra Board of Education to the participating ALTs each year, and we look forward to many more festivals in the future.
We left the gym and returned to the festival grounds to pay a little visit the food stalls that were serving yakisoba, karaage, yakimajuu and other enticing treats. We sat at the very back of the crowd for a while, our hands full of food, watching a live samurai drama. The actors fought their opponents, doing summer saults and backflips, their katana and robes thrashing in the wind. It was like a window into the past, the illusion spoiled only by the corny but endearing sound effects blasted over the speakers.
By the time the drama ended and applause filled the air, the grass where we once sat was empty. No one noticed, but we foreign warriors had quietly slipped away, the sakura budding above us.
Maja Thoenes is a second year JET from Alabama. She is a published author, and enjoys hiking and binging Netflix. You can find her work on Amazon.
If you’re like me, the first time you saw the plastic trays of strawberries at the supermarket in Japan, you jumped for joy. Back home, strawberries were not a seasonal treat, but a year-round expectation. You could even get a large carton of them for about five dollars, depending on the season. So, you can imagine my dismay when a whopping nine strawberries cost nearly 700 yen!
I was in shock. The juicy, ruby red fruits I had taken for granted in America were now snubbing their noses at me, as if to say “now you know our real worth.” Begrudgingly, I would wait until payday to buy my nine strawberries and eat them with relish, savoring the taste until I could afford my next fix. Before I knew it, they’d disappear and make way for new seasonal fruits, not to be spotted again until next winter.
But there is a trick to truly enjoying strawberries in Japan – visit a you-pick farm.
You-pick farms in Japan aren’t the same as back home. Rather than heading out to a dusty farm and crouching down in the dirt paths to hunt for crimson jewels between their waxy leaves, Japanese farms grow the strawberry beds on tables, their treasures shining in the sunlight pouring in from the greenhouse windows.
While the ease of picking has been vastly improved upon, you’re in for a shock if you think you are just going to pick your berries, weigh them, and take home a box full of fruity treasures. Strawberry farms in Japan have an “all you can eat” mentality – a healthier (and less expensive) version of a nomihoudai. When you arrive at the farm, you will make your way to the cashier and pay for a time slot. Strawberry farms usually offer 30- or 60-minute slots for your gastronomic pleasure and cost between 1,000 and 2,000 yen depending on peak times.
Once you’ve paid, you will be given a trash cup or tray and escorted to a hothouse to begin your adventure.
When you enter the hothouse, a chest-high carpet of green stretches out before you. Picking strawberries is as easy as meandering down a row of plants and casually plucking any one that strikes your fancy.
Depending on the farm, the hothouse may only hold one variety of strawberry or many. The one we went to had three varieties in each house, the rows clearly marked by signs on the endcaps. Choose an empty row and make your way down, stopping at any strawberry that you deem worthy of eating and toss the stems into your trash cup. Once you’ve filled your cup with stems, find the trash cans, empty the dead soldiers into the proper bin, and start all over.
The best advice I can give is to take your time. Even 30 minutes is a long time to consistently shovel strawberries into your piehole. Peruse the plants for the brightest, most succulent berries. If you find a good plant, enjoy all the berries it has to offer. Try different varieties, then choose your favorite one and indulge your inner glutton. Take pictures with your friends and revel in the joy that is Japanese strawberry season.
Strawberries are in season from December to early May; however, Gunma is filled with all manner of fruit picking farms throughout the year. You can find a list of strawberry farms on GTIA’s site or farms by region and fruit type on the Gunma Tourism site.
Most fruit farms are not near a station, so you’ll need to find a friend who drives or brave the local bus routes. If you are determined to pick strawberries but can’t find a ride, I’d recommend Tatara Fresh Farm which is about a 20 minute walk from Tatara Station.
Strawberry picking is a Japanese experience you don’t want to miss. So get out there and stuff yourself silly with fresh fruit from the farm!
Nikkita Kent is a misplaced thalassophile who was transplanted from the beaches of Florida to the mountains of Gunma in 2017. Unable to sit still for too long, she delights in teaching senior high school in Ota City, exploring the local restaurants, and travelling at every available opportunity. Check her out on Instagram @daw2dus.
Pink petals float on the breeze as the sun’s gentle rays shine down. Sounds of children playing echo across a green field.
It’s finally here! Spring has returned at last!
A season associated with rebirth, spring is the time when we end our winter hibernation, crawl out from under the kotatsu, and bask in nature renewed. In April, a new school year will begin, and young scholars will embark on new adventures. Nature follows suit, as cherry blossom boughs burst into bloom in the early season. These precious petals can be seen across Japan. But act quickly! Their season is only about two weeks.
So grab some snacks and beverages, lay out your picnic blanket and soak it all in! Popular parks in Tokyo will attract thousands of visitors, eager to participate in the tradition of hanami (flower viewing party). Not to be outdone, Gunma cherry blossoms across the prefecture will put on their best show.
Cherry blossoms are set to bloom soon, as weather forecasts predict an early start to the 2019 hanami season. Knowing where to go is half the battle when it comes maximizing your cherry blossom viewing experience. Here are some of the best places in Gunma for cherry blossoms!
Gunma’s capital is a perfect spot for your first hanami! The Tone River runs through the park, providing a stunning backdrop for the cherry blossoms. At night, enjoy the blooms by lantern light along the hill. And of course, vendors provide festival staples like karaage and takoyaki.
My visit: April 8, 2017
Springtime cherry blossoms adorn the historic grounds of Tomioka’s own World Heritage Site, the Tomioka Silk Mill. Enjoy them under the warm sun during the day, or come to see the nighttime illumination of the sakura.
This year’s illumination period will run from approximately 6pm – 8pm each night from March 25 – April 7 (dependent on blooming conditions).
Pro tip: Check out the nearby shops, such as Kuturogi, which carries a number of delightful gelato flavors!
My visit: April 9 (day) and 12 (night), 2017
This park in Kanra boasts plenty of picturesque cherry blossoms, and water to go with.
If you’re lucky the cherry blossoms will be in bloom at the same time as Kanra’s Castle Town Warrior Procession, a festival which sees the townspeople on parade, dressed up as samurai of the past. Be sure to check it out this year, as you may see some friendly Gunma ALTs in the mix!
There’s also nearby Rakusan-en if you want to combine cherry blossom viewing with a bit of exploration. Rakusan-en is Gunma’s own historic daimyo garden! The grounds are another great setting for photos, with the koi pond and traditional buildings.
My visit: April 9, 2017
Return to Maebashi for a comfortable stroll through the woods for the Akagi Senbonzakura, or Thousand Cherry Trees, Festival. As you emerge from the woods you’ll be greeted by a road lined with vendors, festival food, and of course, sakura! The cherry trees share some of their glory with phlox and other greenery, but it’s safe to say the cherry blossoms themselves are the stars of the show.
This year the Akagi Thousand Cherry Trees Fetsival will be held from April 6 – 21 2019 (tentative depending on flowers).
My visit: April 15, 2017
North of Maebashi, the city of Shibukawa holds the Shiroijuku Double Cherry Blossom Festival. The double cherry blossoms boast more petals than their single-petal compatriots. You can find them in full view around Shiroijuku, but don’t miss out on the parade and festival foods as well!
My visit: April 22, 2018 (the day of the festival!)
Gunma’s lovely mountains mean that there are chances you can catch blossoms that show up later than their buddies in the valleys. Hanging out on Mount Haruna, I was surprised to find cherry blossoms still out – in May! Harunafuji may still be quite brown, but you will see signs of color beginning to appear!
My visit: May 4, 2018
If crowds aren’t your jam, if the distance is too far, or sorting the transportation is daunting, fear not! There are cherry blossoms for everyone! Don’t feel silly searching for them along the path less trodden. Cherry blossoms don’t need a park or a crowd to show off! This spring you’ll find cherry blossoms all around; if this is your first spring in Gunma you might be surprised by what you find locally, whether you’re in the inaka or the big city. You can even ask some of your neighbors or coworkers where those hidden top spots are!
Thanks to a local tip during my first year in Gunma, we learned about this park in Tomioka. The climb up this small “mountain” is great exercise, and I’ve never seen it particularly crowded. The side of the mountain is lined with cherry trees, and when you get to the top you are rewarded with even more beauty, the Tomioka view of Myogi and Asama. If the timing is right you can get cherry blossoms and daffodils together!
Pictures from April 2017, around Gunma.
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Know other places in Gunma worth sharing? Leave a comment down below.
Valerie Landers is a third-year JET in Tomioka. Dabbler in languages, worker of puzzles, and unofficial hype-woman for Gunma. She loves festivals, flowers, and fireworks. There’s a growing collection of houseplants in her apaato, and if you can’t find her there, she might be driving on one of Gunma’s mountains or hanging out in Chakichi, Tomioka’s wonderful matcha café. Follow her adventures on Instagram @duchessmouse
This year’s After JET Conference was held on February 28 at the Tokyo Bay Makuhari Hall in Chiba. Hosted by CLAIR, the conference provides information and support for leaving JETs. The AJC was followed by the JET Programme Career Fair which hosted upward of 100 companies who aimed to speak with leaving JETs about a possibility of further employment in Japan.
Here are my thoughts after the two-day event.
1. Be a Dragon
The AJC was kicked off with an amazing keynote speech by former Hida Takayama JET, Ryan Paugh. In his memorable speech, he made a distinction between two kinds of job-seekers: the butterfly and the dragon. Butterflies commonly send out a few job applications, but their search – for the most part – is passive. Dragons, on the other hand, take a forward approach to job hunting; utilizing their networks and actively making sure that others know they are on the hunt for a job.
2. Build a strong LinkedIn Profile
With the ever-increasing importance of social networking, its safe to assume that possible-employers will be Googling your name when your application lands on their desk. Take advantage of this by creating a strong LinkedIn profile. According to Paugh, who previously worked at the social networking company, more than 50 per cent of employers judge a profile based on (1) your photo and (2) your headline. Make your display picture clean and professional, and your headline attention-grabbing.
And of course, make sure you delete that drunk selfie you posted online last weekend.
3. Tell your JET experience (on your resume)
Your working experience as an ALT might not seem to relate with your desired career in marketing, accounting, or even chemistry; but rest assured the year(s) spent in Japan have equipped you with tangible skills for your next career move.
Even the action of stepping foot and working in Japan proves you are resilient, adaptable, and a great team player. Teaching English in front of hundreds of kids – great for public speaking. Making a lesson plan or year-long curriculum – a great example of organization and leadership qualities.
Don’t sell yourself short. The JET Programme provides us with so many soft skills, applicable to any workplace.
4. The world is full of JETs
Continuing with LinkedIn, make sure to connect with JET Alumni groups worldwide and back home as there are tons of experts who could be working in a field you are interested in. Send them a quick message asking for a bit of their time. Schedule a meeting and pick the minds of our global senpai community. I don’t need to convince you that the JET community is always willing to help a fellow member out.
5. Jobs in Japan for foreigners are plenty, but…
…make sure you know your limitations. This was made very clear on the second day Career Fair, as many companies required business level Japanese abilities. In fact, the three morning lectures on the day of the career Fair were entirely in Japanese. To our fellow JETs sporting N1 or N2, the world (or Japan) is your oyster. Companies like Nintendo and even the famous (among JETs) Keio Plaza Hotel will gladly open their arms for you.
Not to say that anyone with N3 or below should despair. There will always be work available for you. Your time on the JET Programme proves you are capable workers. However, keep in mind the restrictions of language; be realistic about your career goals in Japan. Most people who aren’t strong in Japanese will most likely find their next job in Japan in English teaching or recruiting. Of course, larger cosmopolitan cities like Tokyo will have more (English speaking) opportunities.
These were some of my takeaways from the two conferences this year. Let me know what you think, and feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below!
Originally from Canada, Gavin Au-Yeung is a second-year SHS JET in Isesaki. He is currently preparing for his departure from the JET Programme, but is trying his best to enjoy the remaining months.
Gunma’s windy winter got you feeling down? Feeling in a rut because your winter days consist of going to work and then immediately retreating home to your kotatsu? Its time for you to leave the winter slump!
Here are five tips to get yourself up and moving!
1: Improve yourself
It’s not uncommon for JETs to spend the warmer (read: better) seasons travelling around or beyond Japan. A lot of people tire of travelling during the winter months because its simply too cold. Use this travel-downtime to explore new hobbies and interest. Take an online course you’ve always been interested in. Join that gym down the street from your apartment. There are tons of things you can do in the warm confines of your home as well: learn an instrument, write short stories, cook new dishes. Personally, I like to spend my time playing video games, but some people might not consider that self-improvement…
Use this time to explore new passions… and save some much needed yen for the spring time when most of us will probably find new places to travel to.
2: Hang out
If you’re feeling the winter woes, chances are that your fellow JETs are also experiencing something similar. If possible try to get out once a week or maybe even schedule a get-together. Don’t feel like braving the cold winter? Get together for a warm nabe party. Who wouldn’t want to eat hot pot on a cold, cold night? The point is, its always good to see a friendly face every once in a while.
3: Travel… to warm places
I don’t mean getting on the next flight to Okinawa. But its extremely important to get out of your house every so often (and going to work doesn’t count). If you’re as allergic to the cold as I am, you would be wise to flock to warmer indoor places. Use these months to check out that local cafe you were always interested in (but never had the time to go to), or try going to a museum. If all else fails, a little retail therapy inside the (warm) shopping mall might do the trick.
This wouldn’t be a Gunma website if I didn’t suggest visiting an onsen. You don’t necessarily need to travel up snowy mountains to get to famous hot springs (of course, that’s cool too). Most areas will have local onsens which can get the job done as well. Enjoy the soak, fellas.
4: Think about your post-JET life
This point is especially important for those who have already declared their intention to leave this summer. Just from speaking with friends who are about to leave the JET, it’s clear that a good amount of leaving JETs are uncertain about their future. Use this time to research possible careers, revise your resume, and even talk with others about their career plans. And of course, the After JET Conference will be held on February 28 this year.
It’s best to get the worrying out of the way. With the spring approaching in another month or so, you’ll want to cherish your last months on JET.
5: Come out to GAJET’s Skibo 2019 event
Gunma is incredibly famous for its ski resorts. If you’ve always wanted to ski (or snowboard), feel free to come along with GAJET as we tackle the slopes at Kusatsu! Sign up now, because the event is coming soon (Feb 22)! More information can be found here.
For more ideas, check out this previous article: Winter in Gunma: A guide to keeping sane
Got more suggestions for surviving the winter? Feel free to leave a comment!