Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Flashbacks: Turkey Day aka that is not a biscuit damnit! day

Thursday was my first Thanksgiving back in the US. For my family, Thanksgiving is just another family gathering for us to pig out, but with a few differences. We dress up a bit and add a turkey and other classic Thanksgiving must-haves. It's also tradition to share at least one thing we are grateful for this year. Mine was pretty simple: I was grateful that I can spend Thanksgiving with my family again and able to eat an *actual* turkey.

Looking at the turkey was like this:

Thanksgiving in Japan pretty much marked the beginning of the holiday blues for me. I loved living in Japan, love it and miss it, but November onward was when the homesickness hit. Maybe its because the winter holidays are celebrated so differently in Japan (or don't exist at all, turkeys rejoice) that it really emphasizes the foreignness. At least Japan has a word for turkey(七面鳥、しちめんちょう、or seven-faced bird. lolz). A plus side was that it gave me plenty of lesson ideas/culture sharing time.

My first year in Okayama I had 2 Thanksgivings. The first was a potluck in Yakage, the next town over from Ibara. Awesome food, awesome people, lovely times. The second one was with closer friends. We decided that we wanted to celebrate on the actual day, despite the fact we all had work the next day and some of us had to travel over an hour to commute to and from the city (*ahem* me). Ordering turkey from The Meat Guy and/or the Flying Pig was pretty pricey, so we had KFC instead. I know. Looking back now I'm wondering what the hell were we thinking, but I think it was along the lines of hey, KFC is as American as you can get and its a kind of play on Japan's odd custom of eating KFC/friend chicken on Christmas. We did make homemade mashed potatoes and dessert though! And despite the near brawl of the Americans and British on what a biscuit REALLY is, fun was had by all. Not so much for me when I woke up 5 in the morning to take the first train back to my town and head straight to work. Never. Again.

KFC, hobnobs. Internationalization at its finest

The second time around we took the holiday more seriously. Sort of. Lots more homemade stuff including an awesome chicken bake (our turkey substitute) and homemade apple cider. Oh, and pazookie, can't forget that.  The day can be summed up into 2 words: food and Zelda.

So yes, I was very, *very* happy to celebrate Thanksgiving stateside. But, I am grateful that I was able to celebrate Thanksgiving in Japan with an amazing second family.



Sunday, November 11, 2012

Summer(?) Sonic Osaka 2012

I recently bought tickets for Muse's concert (myfavoritebandofalltimesooooexcited) in Oakland, and it reminded me of one of my concert adventures in Japan. It was definitely a concert event I will never forget. So let me tell you about my Summer Sonic experience.

Besides Fuji Rock, Summer Sonic is one of the biggest summer music festivals in Japan and with a line-up like Rihanna, Gym Class Heroes, and Perfume, I definitely wanted to go before I left Japan. So I did.

A hot, summer concert? Oho, little did we know...

My friends and I went on Saturday and although I was sad to miss out on Green Day and Franz Ferdinand, I ended up seeing artists I like such as Gym Class Heroes and Perfume, and even old school favs like Garbage, The Cardigans, and New Order (all of them, were *amazing* by the way). 

So here my friends and I were, sweating and enjoying Perfume's performance, when clouds started creeping over the sky. I didn't think *too* much of it. After all, summer time in Japan is usually caught between nasty humidity and nasty humidity + rain. A little rain couldn't hurt a concert right?

WRONG. First came the thunder. It was so close and very very loud. It was freaking people out, including me. It didn't help that Perfume stopped performing, apologized and said they would be "right back", then left (they *left* us). Then came the downpour. Honestly Japan, of all the days to rain...

Seeking refuge

Despite the torrent, the *second* we saw it stop, the crowd *rushed* back to the stage areas. So in the end I stayed out all night wet and muddy. I didn't exactly feel my finest, but thinking back on it now I'm definitely glad I went even though I lost a good pair of flats. *sigh*

All in all, not bad for my first summer music festival. Don't let Japan's random fickle weather stop you from going to any of Japan's music summer festivals. I definitely recommend going if you can get the chance.

And I leave you with the foodie pic of the day!

Okay I lied. The Meiji Chocolate building seen from the shinkansen.

Saturday, November 3, 2012 Jur--Mt. Takatsuma Park

I never considered myself a hiking kind of girl. Sure, when I was a kid my family went camping over the summer, but I never did anything more than that especially when I got older and discovered the internet. Then, I climbed Mt. Fuji and I thought it was *awesome*. I guess it also helped that Japan is just a beautiful country and would inspire anyone to go for walks and take in the scenery. So, I was happy when I was invited to go with some of the Ibara English conversation students and hike a small mountain in Yakage, the next big town over. 

It really was a fun hike and the weather was beautiful for it. There was a clearing where we busted out the bento lunches (man did they pack a lot of food! I think us foreigners just packed onigiri/sandwiches from the conbini!). During the hike we looked down on a camping area and thought we even spotted a farm (well we heard the cows).

Not at the top, but whatever

Ah, I loooove 紅葉 (kouyou)

We all went our separate ways in Ibara, though some of the students came to my apartment and dropped off some Japanese sweet potatoes (さつまいも) and konnyaku (こんにゃく, a jelly made from devil's tongue) that they had at home. Man, the perks of living in the inaka!

Yummy shot of the day:


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Blast from the Past: The Melody of Hamamatsu

I know. It's been a while. So much of a while, in fact that now this post is about what I did *last* October.

2 of my friends were placed in Hamamatsu (浜松) in Shizuoka prefecture. Most know the prefecture for some random volcano, mountain thing called Fuji, but for any classical music buff Hamamatsu happens to be known for music: Yamaha is stamped everywhere (its headquarters is based there) and there are music motifs  *everywhere*, including a statue to one of the great composers (a personal fav or mine), Frederic Chopin.

Even their manhole covers! *Manhole covers!* 

Such an emo

As much as I love being an Okayama JET, I have to say the music lover in me was so jealous that my friends were placed here! I remember there would be music everywhere we went whether its from some hopeful band jamming outside, or even the little classic jingles they play on the bus. I was also surprised there was a  pretty big Brazilian community. 

To kill some time we also went to the Museum of Musical Instruments where, well, they showcase musical instruments from around the world.

My friends loved being placed there. I'm glad I had a chance to see why.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nasu no Yoichi

I'm leaving this country in about a month and *now* I decide to write a bit about the town I've lived in for the past two years. Go figure.

If you walk around Ibara, you'll notice a certain theme. Street signs, sewer lids, even the shape of Ibara station itself projects images of something related to archery, a man about to let the arrow fly, or fans. Very curious. During my first year in Ibara I was taken to an old kyudo dojo and there was a display of a battle scene which I then learned was the history of my little town.

The time: Genpei Wars. Who? Nasu no Yoichi, a BAMF from the Minamoto clan with a bow. There's a legend that while on his horse in the waves he struck the center of a fan that was placed on the mast of a boat at sea. Pretty awesome, no? And for showing said awesomeness, one of Nasu no Yoichi's victory spoils was land that will later on be the Ibara I know today. Nasuno's grave is in Nogami-cho, a town that was joined to Ibara and his family members' graves are throughout the Ibara region. Although when my teacher looked it up (on wikipedia) she said there's also a grave marker/site in Kyoto.

Ibara's own Hawkeye

Just a little blurb really, but I think it's awesome that my little town has such an awesome history behind it. 

Side note: This info was taken mostly from word of mouth and Wikipedia so if anything is wrong I blame my lack of Japanese skills. ┗(-_-?)┓

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fireworks! Streamers! Transformers!

...I'm actually talking about a concert.

Back in the day I used to watch a little anime called Bleach (actually my mind is still reeling that a shonen series, let alone Bleach actually *ended*. Ending?) and one of the catchy opening tunes was from a group called UVERworld. I thought the song was so-so at the time, but then I found one of their albums and decided to give them a shot. I needed more Japanese music in my iTunes so I figured, what the heck. The rest as they say, is history. I've been buying their albums ever since. I love their rock/pop/hip-hop blend and their instrumental songs just keep getting better and better. This is a band that I would want to see live if given the chance. So of course, now that I live in Japan when I was notified by Lawson's l-tike service of upcoming UVERworld concerts I immediately signed up. 

For those who don't know much about going to concerts in Japan, it's pretty damn hard. Most, if not all concert tickets (popular music; never tried classical/enka/etc) have to be won by lottery. You sign up then a few days later you get a yay or nay. So the more popular your band is, the harder the chances. That being said, I've heard that joining the band/artist's fanclub gets you better chances or even the chance to buy it earlier, but so far that hasn't worked for me (I'm looking at you Johnnys!!!!) Well, being let down so many times, I signed up anyway and of course I didn't win. My friend, however did. <--This was the part where I fist pumped and nearly screamed in fangirl joy.

Before I talk about the concert, a little background of my previous concert experiences in Japan. Japanese audiences are really...calm. My first experience was a VAMPS concert and since they're a visual kei/rock group, I figured I'd see head banging and dare I say, maybe a mosh pit in the standing area? What I got was this odd...hand flicking. And the creepy thing was the crowd knew when to change hand gestures! I felt like I was missing something! How did they *know?* My next concert, a Rip Slyme one was a bit better, but not much. The hand thing was still there, but since it was hip-hop there was a *bit* more moving around in the audience. I guess it didn't help that the venue was a theater with seating only. It looked like people were having fun. I think. Then there was Lady Gaga. Oh man. It was fun, but it was a mix of a concert and cosplay event, which didn't surprise me and was pretty damn awesome regardless. Cosplayers are so amazing here. Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is, I was kind of wondering what the atmosphere of an UVERworld concert would be like. The majority of their songs are upbeat rock songs you can dance to. There was still a lot of hand flicking/waving, but there was also jumping, dancing (with the space allowed anyway). UVERworld live is *awesome*. Takuya is sweet, always thanking the audience for being there and listening to their music, and Shintaro the drummer is my new husband-to-be amazing and cute when he talks to the crowd. Best part of the concert hands down is seeing Takuya appearing on stage on the drums and playing alongside Shintaro. Then as if he couldn't get more epic, the next tune he goes over to the piano and starts playing. Seeing a versatile pretty hot.

What I like best about having a concert in Osaka hall is the food stalls surrounding the building. All the standard matsuri fare was there, from okonomiyaki to castella. I've never seen a matsuri set up in any of the other venues I went to. I wonder if it's just an Osaka thing?

I am so glad I was able to see UVERworld live. Can definitely check that off my list of things I want to do in Japan.

One of the many goodies I bought at the concert. Also one of the English phrases that make *sense*. I still love you UVERworld!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blast from the Past: New Years Part 2 - Yufuin and Beppuuuuu

Due to laziness and busy-ness, a fellow Peach lady and I didn't go to Korea as planned, so instead we did the next best thing after New Years: onsen in onsen towns Beppu and Yufuin!!  The theme of the trip: ゆっくり, or just taking it slow.

Day 1

The day was spent at Takegawara Onsen for our first sand bath, seeing the lame Beppu Tower, and finding a ramen truck.

Takegawara Onsen

In a sand bath, you are buried in natural hot sand for about 15-20 minutes. I liked it, but it would've been much better if there was a good view rather than a wall. I forgot where we stayed for the duration of our trip, but the place was a mix between a dormitory and a ryokan. Even though we were essentially in the red light district of Beppu, the place was nice enough and its' onsen were nice too. You can even reserve one of the private ones which was really sweet.

Day 2

The second day was exploring Yufuin and meeting really nice people. One lady recommended us Nurukawa  Onsen which we found by chance and was amazing, and a nice man selling wood craft made us free cat charms. 

fufufu-ing over hana yori dango

Day 3: Last Day

You can't really go to Beppu without seeing the hells (themed hot springs). There are several, but we ended up going to Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell) and Shiraike Jigoku (White pond Hell). Umi was pretty neat since the water is a cool electric blue (if you can see past the steam) and it had a neat foot bath where you can kick around huge, deformed grapefruit around. Shiraike was freakin' lame.

Boiled eggs from hell, anyone?

After we went to Beppu Kaihin Sunayu (Beppu Seaside Sand Bath) for some sand bathing next to the beach. Way better than Takegawara since it was outside and you can just stare at the ocean.

To the left you can see the sand bathers' plants

Beppu/Yufuin is a must-go for any onsen fan! After the bright lights and rush of Tokyo and Yokohama onsen hopping in Kyushu was a nice change of pace.

Tasty pic of the trip:

Tori-ten aka chicken tempura, a popular Beppu dish. Soft and delicious!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

がんばれ日本 Volunteering in Tohoku

Over spring break I was able to volunteer in the Tohoku area to help with rebuilding. A friend and I volunteered for almost a week with Tono Magokoro net based in Tono-shi, Iwate prefecture. I can honestly say that this is the most unforgettable experience I've had in Japan,  on par with climbing Mt. Fuji.

For us peaches, Iwate is pretty darn far. We took a night bus Saturday night, spent the day in Tokyo, then another night bus to Tono-shi. Luckily Mondays are a day off for Magokoro net so on our first day we were able to get our bearings, shop for food and supplies, etc before actually volunteering. And also get used to the fact that we went back in time to winter again. I was enjoying the warmer weather too. Damnit.

Day 2 April 3

We were sort of recruited for "communication support" for the Otsuchi community. It's just a fancy way of saying to hang out with the obaa-chan. So Kelsey and I made scrunchies and served some tea for them. What amazed me was how...genki they were. The only complaints I heard were how their leaf pattern looked funky. There was also a cute 5th year elementary student who came and terrorized the male volunteer (he works for Magokoro so he's been there often). She said she wanted to become a shinkansen driver so she can get scouted for the AKB48 group. The drive to Otsuchi was my first look at a disaster hit area. No matter how many times you see the photos floating around the interwebs, it really pales in comparison to seeing it right before your eyes. 

In the distance, you can see a car rammed through the 3rd floor of the junior high school

Day 3 April 4

All activities cancelled due to snow storm. Never really been in one until that day. This trip was a first for me in a lot of things....but I'll get to that later.

Day 4 April 5

After all the equipment we bought, Kelsey and I swore we were going to do 瓦礫, or rubble clean-up at least once for our volunteer trip. A big group was sent out to the Hakozaki area in Kamaishi, one of the hard hit towns on the coast of Iwate. We were dropped off at an elementary school (not in use anymore, the majority of the building was still standing but the walls were torn down) and from there the head volunteers split us into groups and we picked up trash, building rubble and stuff and set them with the other big piles of garbage. I'm so glad I'm used to the garbage separating system in Japan because it really came in handy when sorting stuff out. Near the start of the clean-up I found a torn photo of a little boy smiling. I couldn't help but stare at it for a while, but eventually I gave it to one of the head volunteers. I hope that boy is alright. Despite the craziness of seeing the aftermath of the tsunami there was a silver lining: over lunch the group took us to the small port where there was a ceremony for the maiden voyage of a fishing boat. This boat is the first boat built in Hakozaki since the tsunami. A priest blessed the ship and later the crew threw red and white mochi at the small crowd. Word of advice: do *not* cross an obaa-chan and her mochi. No lie.

The Hakozaki Maru 10

Day 5 April 6

Our last day of volunteering was spent tearing and packing wakame, or seaweed, which is one of the products Iwate is known for. No joke. A couple of months back my school received wakame as a thank you gift from Tohoku for their donations and my teachers FLIPPED out and whipped out bags to take some home. Anyway, we were split into 2 groups. One group had to take apart wakame (they were formed in a wheel shape, kind of like cheese and weighed about 200 kg a pop!) while the other group organized them in the crates to be shipped (after being heavily salted). By the end of the day my clothes were stained white with the salt. I never wanted to look at wakame and salt ever again, but of course this being Japan....

That's a loooot of seaweed

The end to end all trips

You know that dream/nightmare moment where something crazy big happens then you realize that you're naked? Well it happened, but this time *everyone's* naked.

Lucky for us on Friday the nice onsen was half-off so Kelsey and I joined in. Nothing like a nice soak before heading back right? Oh how little did I, I've been into sento/onsen plenty of times, and I know when to call it quits, but I guess I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was. After the onsen the girls and I went into the sauna, but I felt that familiar, dizzy, better-drink-some-water feeling, so I got up to leave. That's when things started getting fuzzy. Literally. I think I remember the girls snickering that I barely just got in. I remember touching the door to get out. Next thing I know they're waking me up and told me I fell. Then I realized my head and mouth were bleeding a bit. Long story short, after the longest bus ride ever back to the volunteer center I was taken to Tono Hospital by ambulance (first time in an ambulance!), got a CT Scan (first CT scan!) then stayed the night to be observed. The next day everything besides my face felt much better (seriously I cringed when I saw my face, which I shouldn't have done because that hurt) and I was able to leave in the afternoon. Kelsey and I left in time to catch the night bus from Tokyo to Kurashiki that night. I hated leaving in such a rush because I couldn't thank the volunteer group properly, especially the ladies who helped me, but I made do with a thank you letter and a promise to myself I'd send something really nice to repay the kindness. It was Kelsey and 2 other volunteer girls that pretty much stuck with me the whole time. I can't thank them enough. Thinking back on it now though, I found it odd that one of them went with me in the ambulance since she didn't speak a word of English when they wanted a "translator" for me. Despite the fact that there was Magokoro net employee who was from New York and spoke Japanese perfectly. So in the end I still had to communicate what I was going through and listen to the hospital jargon all in Japanese despite the feeling that my head was going to split open.

ANYWAY, in the end, I got back to Ibara safely (more or less) and was rewarded with the sight of sunny spring weather and sakura. Plus it was my town's sakura festival that day too. Sweet.

I think I've seen enough of the disaster photos that I wasn't too surprised when going to Iwate. I think what amazed me was how much was done. Businesses are more or less up and running, kids are going to school (though they have to commute and join a school that wasn't affected); it was amazing to see. One volunteer who visited me in the hospital said that possibly by next year Magokoro net will stop operations. Of course there is still a lot to be done. What really struck me was the mountains of debris from the clean-up. Where is all that going to go? There have been articles about some prefectures sending the garbage throughout Japan and burning it and stuff like that. Regardless my mind just boggles when thinking of where to put all that debris.

For anyone in Japan, I encourage to volunteer in Tohoku. It was such an amazing experience and really shows you the determined spirit of Japan. Just don't forget to drink lots of water.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sumo Shufflin`

Now that I`ve decided to not recontract on JET, I find myself trying to balance between the current job, searching for a new job (whether in Japan or elsewhere) and seeing as much of Japan as I can before summer`s end. Fortunately this past weekend I was able to cross off one on my Japan Bucket List: going to see a sumo tournament!

First of all, sumo is way more interesting to watch live than on TV. I saw a sumo match on TV once and had to say I wasn`t impressed. Every time the 力士(rikishi, or sumo wrestler) crouch, they just get up again and wipe themselves off like they were fighting the whole time. But after watching the tournament in Osaka, reading up on the history and just living here in Japan, I`ve come to understand and appreciate the sport.

The Players:
行司- Gyouji, or sumo referee. Dressed in preeeetty colors and gets to twirl a pretty fan
力士- Rikishi, or sumo wrestlers
横綱- Yokozuna, highest title given to a rikishi
The Judges- 4 judges, one for each side of the ring. Look like Bleach captains.

What`s a Japanese event without some ceremonies! The opening ceremony had the rikishi form 2 lines on either side of the stadium and each line walked up to the 土俵 (doyou, the ring where they duke it out) and performed an opening ritual. They wore spiffy looking aprons that were made of silk and range in design and flashiness. One rikishi`s nearly blinded me because it was bling-blinging so much.

bling bling!

After the rikishi strutted their stuff, the yokuzuna and two upper ranking rikishi performed another ceremony which comprised of stamping out the evil in the doyou (NOW I know why sumo wrestlers stomp on the ground!) and the weirdest epic squat shuffle I have ever seen in my life.

Everybody shufflin`

The Game:
The matches start with the yokozuna match being last. Before they even face each other, they purify themselves (lots of purifying going on in sumo) and the doyou (again) by tossing salt unto it. They then squat and crouch then...get up and repeat the purifying-get-ready- process. This goes on for a couple of more times until the rikishi `feel ready`. Or after 4 minutes whatever comes first. The actual fight itself doesn`t take long at all so it`s no wonder they take their time. This part of the match is used to psych out the opponent. Some rikishi actually did some moves in their corner towards the audience while fans cheered (WW...S?) A rikishi loses if any part of their body hits the ground. I was excited to finally see Hakuho (the current yokozuna) in action and see him win. I would`ve been bummed if I came all this way just to see the yokuzuna *lose*.

And of course all events must end with an *ending* ceremony. Sumo ends with a chosen lower-ranked rikishi to perform a special `bow dance` (yumitori-shiki), which is pretty bad ass.

The short matches might make sumo sound pretty dull, but sumo is steeped with history and ceremony and the matches reflect that. That isn`t to say watching the game live is boring. Japanese cheered for their favorite rikishi and waved banners or little fans to show who they were rooting for. So yes, unlike graduation ceremonies and some music concerts, Japanese can let loose. I was expecting workers to walk up and down the aisles selling beer and matsuri-type food, but the only thing they were selling was ice cream...(food was being sold in the omiyage stalls in the halls). Another interesting thing is how international the sport is. A lot of rikishi are from other countries including the yokozuna Hakuho who`s Mongolian.  I once read an article on how some Japanese people rallied against Korean pop-starts invading their dramas and radio. Yet the Japanese seem to embrace the foreigners happily which surprised me. It was a pretty cool thing to see.

All in all, I`m glad I got to see a sumo match and recommend it to anyone who wants a taste of the blend of Japanese past and modern history. I`d recommend getting tickets in advance or be prepared to lighten your wallet the day of (like me and my friends did. Worth it though). You *can* get the free seating general tickets, but those are sold only the day of the match and bought on site so you would have to be in line pretty early. 

Now everyone, do the sumo shuffle!

Friday, March 2, 2012

The return of the Genki...

So...back in December I talked about a crazy video the Ibara JETs did in the fall called Genki Taiso. Well, about a month ago we received a copy and it's been broadcasting on the local channels.

Genki Taiso is a play on Japan's radio taiso which is a morning warm-up exercise companies can do together to build up team spirit and promote health and all that jazz. Do you remember the first episode of Heroes? You know, when Heroes was actually *awesome*? And Hiro and his co-workers were doing those weird exercise moves? Yup, that's radio taiso. Apparently Japan got it from the US back in the 1920s (yay wikipedia) and was used for the soldiers in the 1930s-40s. Then Japan got owned and now well, we get things like this:

The atrocity starts around 0:15...

 I don't really see it too much at my schools; I think I've only seen it during the sports festival. My BOE does it every morning. The men do it while the women kind of sneak into the refresh room and wait it out. Even now I have people in town come up to me and tell me they saw me on TV. And my kids ask me to do it. Sigh. The things I do for internationalization...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Blast from the Past: Waving from such great heights aka Conquering Mt. Fuji

I was told by the ever-so-awesome Shar ( that today is Mt. Fuji Day. The 2-2-3 of the date sounds similar to saying Fuji-san 富士山, or Mt. Fuji. So to honor this day I decided to make my lazy self actually write up my experience on climbing it. It only took me 7 months after the fact, but better late than never yes?

The climbing season for Mt. Fuji is between July and September. I went with Okayama and Hiroshima AJET to do a night hike in order to see the sunrise at the summit. Well, that was the plan for most of us anyway. We left Okayama station around 10 AM and arrived at the Kawaguchiko 5th station around 8-8:30 PM. Mt. Fuji has 8 stations (plus the 8.5) where climbers can stop and the 5th station is where all the tour buses stop and pretty much where everyone starts. My group took the Yoshida-guchi Route to the summit and back.

Ohh so innocent. Little did we know the pain that awaited us...

Mt. Fuji is no joke. Prior to the trip, I heard horror stories from previous climbers: from the agony of the climb to how they couldn't finish due to oxygen deprivation, etc. Japanese people I told would do a double take then proceed to give me that look you would probably get when they know you're going to your doom. Despite the warnings though I was stoked! Not many people can say 'I climbed Mt. Fuji', right? It was only when I was on the bus and we saw Fuji looming over us that I wondered what the hell I got myself into....

Yet somehow, I survived. By the 7th station the path gets pretty steep. Around 8 and 8.5 station I remember having to use my hands to navigate and climb up. But it was worth it.

With my group's pace our hike to the summit took about 8 hours.

Sadly I wasn't able to be at the actual summit on sunrise; my group was still at 8.5 which is the last station before the summit. My group figured this was good enough. We ended up going to the summit after (since we were already up there), and there was quite a long line. After we had enough omiyage shopping and looking around the crater, we headed back down which was probably the most brutal, painful thing I've ever done. No one says anything about the way *down*! The path is so steep you practically running down the whole time and it puts so much pressure on your knees and feet! I was practically in tears near the end. I was so shocked that the descent was more difficult than the climb!

Everything turned out fine because we rewarded ourselves with lunch and bath at Fujiyama onsen. Utter. Bliss. We were a bit late leaving Mt. Fuji so we didn't have a lot of time to spend in the onsen, but it was enough.

For anyone who plans on taking the challenge that is Mt. Fuji. Here's the gear and other things I brought with me:


Top: Heat-tech, Under-Armor, a hoodie, winter jacket, rain jacket
Bottom: leggings, thermal leggings (long johns), wind breaker pants, snowboard pants
Feet: hiking socks and shoes
Etc.: Gloves, kairo (heat packs, both to put on clothes and the ones you just hold), headlight (a MUST if doing the night hike)

first aid kit
snacks: I brought onigiri and a whole bunch of energy bars. Other people in my group brought nuts and dried fruit and we pretty much shared. Don't forget water!!
toilet paper
trash bags: for your own and for your clothes after the hike
waterproof cover for your bag

Just make sure to layer for this hike. Mt. Fuji is 3775 meters high and even though I hiked in July there was still snow covering the lip of the crater. Don't bring/eat a full meal once you're up there since you don't want to be too full while hiking up. The bathrooms throughout the hike are what you would expect in a public area so bring some tissues/toilet paper if you can. Try and avoid the bathroom at the summit though, that was just...ugh.  I also brought an oxygen can, but in the end I didn't use it since the elevation didn't really affect me, but it did affect some of the other JETs so bringing one is up to the climber.

Mt. Fuji was definitely worth the challenge! Even afterwards where I nearly cried every time I saw a flight of stairs! If you have the chance (and the guts) then you should go for it!

Happy 富士山の日!

The walking stick I purchased at the 5th station. You can brand the stick at each station as you ascend. I didn't get all of them sadly, but I got the one that counts!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Let it snow! Sapporo Yuki Matsuri

I wasn't able to go the Snow Festival in Sapporo last year so I made sure to put it in my travel itinerary for the year! Now that I've decided to not recontract, the need to see as much of Japan (I still intend to try and travel to all 4 main islands!) is even stronger! Anyway, the さっぽろ雪祭り (Sapporo Snow Festival) is one of the biggest, if not THE, winter event of the year. The festival showcases hundreds of snow and ice sculptures including ones from abroad and a play site area for me the little ones. The festival itself wasn't as crowded as I thought it would be (and there's *always* crowds in Japan for events).

2 fellow Okayama JETs and I left from Kansai International on Friday and arrived in Sapporo. Last month I went to Nagano and I think that helped prepare me for the cold, but it still amazed me to see all. that. snow!!

The Californian in me thinks this is so awesome!

Day 1 was spent in the Susukino site which had the ice sculptures. Now everything (the Odori, Susukino, and Tsudomu) is held outside so we were taking quick pictures then rushing into the closest conbini to defrost our hands (seems like Sapporo loves Lawsons). 

Frozen seafood. Oh Japan.

The sculptures are lit up at night as well so we headed towards Odori which is the main site for the snow sculptures. I wasn't really prepared for the size of some of the sculptures even though I've seen previous year's.

The details in these sculptures is just mind-blowing

On Day 2 we took a brief break from the festival to see the Ishiya Chocolate Factory, which is famous for the White Lover's Chocolate omiyage 白い恋人. For a second I thought I stepped into Narnia, or the It's a Small World ride. I didn't expect the amusement park-like design for a chocolate factory. I'm sure it would be even nicer in the spring/summer because the place had a rose garden. Afterwards we took the subway to the Tsudomu site, and went back to Odori at night to finish where we left off.

Hong Kong's sculpture. Won the international competition.

Now, snow sculptures are all well and good, but I think a hidden gem of Hokkaido, is the food. Dairy products, flavored caramel (butter, salt, matcha anyone?), miso ramen, and the ultimate Ghengis Khan? *DROOL* Japan really makes me wish humans were born with 2 stomachs.

Akarenga ramen @ Akarenga, Ramen Yokocho: Butter, corn, and chashu. Oh yeaaa.

Genghis Khan @ Sapporo Beer Garden: lamb yakinu. The grill is a bit-domed shape like a hat/helmet.

I don't take Japan's weather well: my California sensibilities detest the cold, but Hokkaido and the Snow Festival is worth going to and I more or less returned with good health (layers and layers, heat tech, カイロ, and snow/waterproof shoes shall save your life). My only regret is not having more time to explore more of Hokkaido (Hakodate~~) and not having another stomach soup curry, another famous Sapporo dish. More pics of the sculptures (and food) can be found on my Flickr

Monday, January 30, 2012

New Years Part 1: Tokyo, Yokohama, Kamakura

I spent New Years in one of my (now) favorite cities in Japan: Yokohama! Not sure why I have this love for cities in the bay, but there it is. I left from Fukuyama station and I was able to take one of the new shinkansen trains, Sakura! The Sakura runs from Kagoshima in Kyushu to Shin-Osaka so I had to transfer, but it was *so* worth the hour to ride it. Unlike the other trains, the Sakura only has reserved and un-reserved (no green car). The reserved has 2 seats to an aisle so it's very spacious and comfy. I really wish it ran all the way to Tokyo.

My love for the shinkansen is yet another obsession I can't explain.

The day I arrived was a reunion/alumni meeting/end-of-the-year-party (忘年会 or bounenkai). My friends and I were able to meet with one of our Japanese professors!! It was so amazing to see her (and my friends) in Japan; she's one of the reasons why I'm here in Japan today.

At a cafe in Shibuya for alumni meeting
Us: What would you like to drink, sensei? There's coffee and juice, etc.
BAMF  Sensei: I'll start with beer.

All in all, our bounenkai was fun! My friend chose a really nice place with good food and we ended with karaoke (as all things should end with).

The rest of my New Years consisted of me stuffing my face with tasty things and occasionally walking, taking the train to said tasty things. My only regret was that Robeks (a smoothie shop in CA, I MISS SMOOTHIES/JAMBA JUICE SO BAD) was closed for the holidays! Yes, things get pretty quiet in Japan over New Years since this is a time where people travel to their hometowns and spend time with their families.

New Years Eve I spent under a kotatsu, eating soy milk nabe and flipping channels between Gaki no Tsukai and Kouhaku Uta Gassen. Gaki no Tsukai is a (usually) hilarious show where a group of comedians are taken for 24 hours, but they must not laugh. Otherwise they get punished. This year was a smack to the bootie, but there was one year where the punishers used a blow dart on the comedians.

This isn't the best one, but you get the idea.

Harsh! On the other end of the spectrum, Kouhaku is a singing competition that`s comprised of the red team (female artists/groups) and the white team (boys) hence the name Kouhaku 紅白. I`m not really sure how they judge which groups wins, but this year the white team won which was a surprise. The boys usually win.

The rest of my New Years was pretty chill.

Stuffing my face Hatsumode in Kamakura at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine. When you reach the top of the stairs, you can see a nice view all the way to the water. Kamakura is one of the most popular places to do Hatsumode, so I wasn't able to explore a lot, but I would definitely go back to see the great Buddha, the ocean, and taste all the yummy foods in the shopping street, like German curry sausages...I'm not sure why German sausages are famous there, but there was a variety of them. The herb one was *delicious*.

I also went to the new Wendy`s in Omotesando.

It was so...fancy

Nothing too crazy, but I was able to see friends in Tokyo and Yokohama. I have no complaints. Hopefully soon I'll post the next half of my winter vacation spent in Beppu, Kyushu!

Tasty of the day:

SAD PANDA (in strawberry, matcha, and chocolate filling!)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nagano Winter Snow Extravaganza!

I`ve always wanted to try snowboarding, so I jumped at the chance when my friend/fellow JET invited some of us to his place in Yudanaka in Nagano (長野県湯田中) I jumped at the chance despite the distance (Shinkansen from Fukuyama to Shin-Osaka, then an all night bus from Osaka OCAT in Namba station to Yudanaka, sheesh)! Plus I get to go snowboarding where they held several of the 1998 winter Olypmic events!

From Yudanaka we took a bus to Shiga Kogen which is a huuuuge ski resort that`s made up of 21 fields of
skiing/snowboarding goodness. My friends and I went to 一の瀬 (Ichinose).

 The bus ride on the way to Shiga Kogen.

The snow and I got to know each other *really* well...

It was only when we arrived and I looked up at the slopes that I got nervous and remembered that A) I`m not a sports person and B) The only winter activity I`ve ever done is sledding and throwing snowballs. Let`s just say there was a lot of falling involved. BUT, near the end I was more or less keeping up with the guys who were more experienced in snowboarding and I fell down twice on my last run. Not bad for my first time ever. I think. And since we knew we were going to be sore the next day we ended the day with nabeyaki udon in みかさ (Mikasa, a local restaurant/izakaya. Best nabeyaki udon I`ve had so far) and soaking in the onsen. Bliss. We were still sore as hell, but the onsen was bliss nonetheless.

The next day we were taken to the Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑、Jigokudani Yaen Kouen), sore muscles and all. I`m not really into monkeys to be honest, but I have to say seeing monkeys relaxing in an onsen is pretty damn cool. And how can you deny this:


Afterwards we headed back for the long trip home: 1 hour express train from Yudanaka to Nagano. 3 hour ride from Nagano to Nagoya, then another 2 hours from there to Fukuyama for the half hour train ride home. Whew. Despite the long travel time, it was definitely worth it. I definitely recommend Shiga Kogen and Nagano for any fan of the snow (and monkeys).

Tasty of the day:

Kaki-age soba (かき揚げそば). Mixed vegetables fried with tempura batter that you put on top of soba noodles.


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