Ladies’ Weekend at Kurokawa Onsen Village

From the moment I returned to Japan from my winter trip home to the states, I pretty much hit the ground running. I had to work two weekends in a row, co-led a workshop for the annual Miyazaki JET Skills Development Conference, and spent the dreaded inauguration weekend answering questions and playing American-themed games at a the local “World Festa” event, where I was meant to engage families in internationalization. If I had 100yen (roughly a dollar) for every old man who came up and made a joke about Trump over the course of those 5 hours, I’d be able to buy enough alcohol to make the whole thing slightly more bearable. But alas… In a small act of defiance, I wore my “The Future is Female” shirt, and all Americans in charge of decorating our booth refused to use any pictures of the Cheetoh in Chief. All complaining aside, I did manage to have a few thoughtful conversations about the state of the US, and overwhelmingly the Japanese people I spoke with were concerned about the relationship between our countries. It was a long, interesting day.

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Walking down the street in Kurokawa

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Kagoshima Road Trip – Camping, Hot Springs and Archery

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Selfie at Cape Nagasakibana, in front of Mt. Kaimondake (the “Fuji of Satsuma”)

On the road again after my stop at the Ibusuki sand baths, I took several detours – I visited Cape Nagasakibana, the southernmost tip of the Satsuma peninsula, and Lake Ikeda, the largest lake in Kyushu. Both were gorgeous, offering stunning views (despite the crazy heat) and interesting history. A highlight for me was the statue of Lake Ikeda’s resident monster, Issie (pronounced ee-shee), which is absolutely the Japanese version of Nessie. The lake is actually home to giant eels, so as far as I’m concerned the lake does in fact have monsters. Continue reading

Dalat, Day 2

On the second day of our trip to Dalat we had decided to ride a cable car into the mountains, see some waterfalls, and then take a tour of local farms in the afternoon. But before all of that, we started our day with breakfast at the homestay.

Breakfast at the hostel was a do-it-yourself type deal, with omelet supplies readily available, and plenty of bread and Dalat strawberry jam. We came down a bit late so most of the guests had already left. This meant we got to spend the morning with one of the house residents, an older woman who spoke no English and had no intention of letting that stop her from having full conversations with the guests. She would speak to us in Vietnamese with plenty of gestures and expressions, and we would do the same in English. She was by far our favorite person at the homestay, with a huge personality and a lot to say.

Coffee beans laid out to dry
Coffee beans laid out to dry

After breakfast we took a taxi to the base of the cable car, where we took in a lovely view of the city, and came across sheets of coffee beans, drying in the sun. After snapping a few pictures and wondering who the beans belonged to, we made our way to the cable car and rode up with an Israeli guy who told us all about his travels. The views were lovely, and I was really enjoying being in the mountains after months of life in the delta.

The city of Da Lat
The city of Da Lat

At the top of the cable car we found our way to the monastery, which was nice enough. Mostly we wandered through the gardens, watched other tourists (mostly Russians), and enjoyed a nice, sunny day.

Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery
Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery

After walking through the monastery we decided to walk to the waterfall, which we were told was about 2 kilometers (roughly 1.2 miles) away, and definitely within walking distance.

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Now, I should say that in Vietnam, if you ask for walking directions almost anywhere, even just a few blocks away, people think it’s weird. People pretty much take their bikes or motos everywhere. So, when the woman at the monastery assured us the walk was short, we believed her. Turns out we shouldn’t have, since the walk was way longer than we had anticipated. But after about an hour of walking, with a few pit stops for dried fruit and fresh persimmons, we found the waterfall.

Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall
Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall

The first thing we noticed is that we had to pay to see the waterfall, which was a bit strange, but we accepted it and went in. Once inside the gate, at the top of a hill, we saw a sign for a “roller coaster” that could take us down the hill to the waterfall. Lisa and Annin were really excited about it, so I set aside my fear of roller coasters and decided to give it a try – it was more of a toboggan slide than a roller coaster, and I was put in charge of the break. The ride was a bit scary, but a lot of fun. Annin and I were screaming the whole way, but I used the break every time we passed a “break!” sign, which was probably a good idea – some of the turns really made me think we might fly off the rails (though that probably would never happen…. right?).

Toboggan on the way back up - no screaming this time.
Toboggan on the way back up – no screaming this time.

But anyway, we all made it safely to the bottom, where we admired a very nice waterfall. Before we went up to the waterfall, we saw that there was yet another cable car, and since we had bought tickets for every other type of transport that day, we figured it was probably best to ride this as well. The ride was super short, and it took us to a smaller waterfall. There was nowhere to go, but there was a glass elevator built into the rock, and for another fee we could ride the elevator down. We all decided this sounded a bit absurd, and we rode back to the main waterfall.

Pretty!
Pretty!

As we were looking at the big waterfall, we noticed a man dressed as a monkey wandering around. We weren’t sure exactly why he was there, but Annin went to go take a picture with him. He promptly turned around when she walked up to him for a picture, which we assumed meant he wanted us to pay for the photo (though he never said anything, or did anything to suggest we pay). We went ahead and took pictures with his back turned, and right after the photo below was taken, he angrily shoved Annin away. While we were standing next to the drop off for the waterfall on slippery rocks. She was totally fine, but we were a bit shocked.

Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin
Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin

Since everyone was alright we laughed it off and took the “roller coaster” back up the hill, since it had a suspension deal that pulled us back up. We headed back to town and had lunch by the lake.

IMG_2611 In the afternoon we went back to the homestay and the owner lead us on a walk through the neighboring farms. The terrain was a bit treacherous, and another guest who was walking with us slipped and fell down a hill leading to the strawberry plants. He was alright, but after that we were all very cautious.

Strawberry fields forever
Strawberry fields forever
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills

We walked through fields of flowers, stawberries, broccoli, and countless other plants that I have since forgotten. We walked around for over an hour and the scenery was lovely. At the end of the tour we watched the sun set over the farms and went back to the homestay to cook dinner.

Dinner at the homestay
Dinner at the homestay

Welcome to Da Lat!

After departing from Ho Chi Minh City by plane, Annin, Lisa, Pase and I made our way to Da Lat – a city in the central highlands known for strawberries, flowers, and cool weather. It’s also more of a destination for domestic tourists, and is often skipped by foreigners, which is a big mistake in my opinion.

Cloudy sky over pagoda #2
Cloudy sky over pagoda #2

Flying in it was very clear that the area was going to be beautiful – we could see mountains and lakes from the air. The drive from the airport was also beautiful, even if the cab driver made a mysterious call in the middle of the drive, handed us the phone and a voice informed us we would have to pay d30,000 ($1.50) more than the taxi voucher said. Despite our protests, when we arrived at our homestay, the taxi driver was adamant, and eventually we had to give in. This is a pretty common occurrence in Vietnam – many times you can get a taxi voucher from the airport with a flat rate for taxis, but they will try anything and everything to get more than you paid for, since they can pocket any extra money, rather than going through the airport service.

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In any event, we arrived safe and sound at our homestay, and were immediately given a delicious lunch of homemade noodles, and the owner of the business, Hoang, told us all about his decision to turn his family’s house into a homestay, his tour offerings, and a bunch of other information. It was all a bit overwhelming, so we retreated to our rooms and decided to just walk into town by ourselves, rather than take him up on a tour.

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The homestay was a bit out of the way, but it was a nice walk into town. On the way we passed three different pagodas, all of which were very interesting. The first was very pretty, and we saw monks walking across the grounds and praying in a nearby building. Walking around, a man informed me that the bonsai trees cost several thousand dollars, which was very impressive, but unfortunately he couldn’t explain t to me why there were two topiaries in the shape of teapots… I suppose this will remain a mystery.

No clue why this was in a monastery...
No clue why this was in a monastery…

Pagoda number two was attached to the first one, but was rundown and seemingly abandoned for the most part. It was clear that people maintained the altars, which held fresh flowers and offerings, but the rest of the facilities were in disrepair. It was a bit eerie, wandering around, but also very beautiful.

A sly looking elephant at the abandoned temple
A sly looking elephant at the abandoned temple

The final pagoda was probably the strangest. We were drawn in by a giant sculpture of a dragon, which we could easily see over the gate and down the street. This thing was massive! It circled half the grounds, and was quite a sight. And it wasn’t the only spectacle – the entire pagoda was littered with sculptures and paintings of various Buddhist stories. Honestly, we thought they had something for every single Buddhist story, from the life of the Buddha to the Journey to the West. It was fascinating, and we all wandered around testing our memory of each story depicted.

A bit of scale - this dragon was HUGE and wound all around one half of the grounds. I'm standing next to only one portion - it was too bit to fully photograph
A bit of scale – this dragon was HUGE and wound all around one half of the grounds. I’m standing next to only one portion – it was too big to fully photograph

After taking a plethora of photos at the monasteries, we walked into town in search of the lake. We never actually got there, but we did wander into an awesome bakery where we purchased everything with an interesting name, and a few things that just looked great. We kept wandering around, but eventually had to call it quits in order to return in time for dinner at the homestay. We found a taxi and set out, but after a few blocks it became clear that the meter was rigged. We debated what to do for a minute, and decided to call him out on it. We told him to pull over and hopped out of the cab. The price was double what it should have been, and we refused to pay. We started walking away and the taxi driver, angry at our decision, started following us, and tried to cut us off by driving up onto the sidewalk. We continued walking around him, even when he tried this at least three more times. When we got to an intersection, he took a right, headed in what he knew was the direction of our homestay. We promptly took a left, and walked on until we realized he had given up and driven away. The whole experience was a bit scary, but everything was fine in the end. Most of the areas were well lit and crowded, and when we got out we realized where we were, and walked the remaining distance to our homestay without incident.

An interesting statue and a very expensive bonsai
An interesting statue and a very expensive bonsai

Dinner that night was a group affair – we helped cook curry and a few other dishes, then sat outside with the other homestay guests, plus people from the hotel down the street. There must have been 15-20 people total, and it was a bit awkward, but the food was tasty. That night we played cards and proceeded to eat all of the baked goods, some of which were better than others. One particularly memorable item was a “coconut cake” that tasted like mashed potatoes… not what I was expecting. After Annin crushed us in the card game, we decided on our plans for the next day and went to bed.

It's all about the details - a porcelain mosaic dragon with wire whiskers
It’s all about the details – a porcelain mosaic dragon with wire whiskers