I think that when I look back on my time in Japan, it's nights like tonight that I will treasure the most.
Instead of going to the AJET Aomori Welcome Party, I opted to stay in Towada to check out the Aki Matsuri (Fall Festival) with a teacher friend who used to be at Kirita JHS (she now teaches at a different junior high school in Towada) and her friend.
Even though it was raining a bit, we walked down together to see the various dashi (floats) in the parade. All the taiko players, dancers, people pulling the dashi, etc. were pretty energetic in spite of the rain. We had takoyaki (octopus balls), jaga butter (potato with an unbelievably massive hunk of butter), and shaapin (fried dough pancake with minced meat & veggies inside).
After the parade, we went to a small restaurant for dinner and drinks (just iced Oolong tea for me, of course, since I'm such a weak drinker). The saba (mackeral) and hotate (scallop) sashimi were good, as expected, but the cow liver sashimi was also surprisingly tasty! I've never really liked liver, but when they asked if I was OK with it before they ordered, I figured I'd give it a try and so I said yes. Turns out that liver sashimi tastes quite different from regular cooked liver... I wouldn't mind eating it again!
But yeah, we talked about a bunch of different things: students nowadays, the differences between Japan and Canada, Japanese superstitions (apparently it's OK to kill spiders in the morning, but not good to kill them in the evening!), etc. etc. Even though I didn't speak a lot, I still felt comfortable and included in the conversation, and didn't feel at all awkward or uneasy about my long stretches of silence (which is generally NOT the case when I'm at a large social gathering).
Although I had kind of wanted to go to the Welcome Party to meet the new JETs (in particular to see the Group A newbies again), I really prefer hanging out with people in small groups (3-4 is perfect), so I feel like I definitely made the right choice in staying in Towada for my final Aki Matsuri. I feel a bit guilty about it, but I suspect that I will be making the same choice (to stay at home or to do something with a few friends instead of attending large JET events) a lot this year.