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

Needless to say, after two weeks of non-stop work and a bit of jet lag, I was absolutely ready for a weekend of relaxing in an onsen village. A friend of mine had organized the trip, apparently a semi-annual tradition among the foreign ladies of Miyazaki, and we were all very excited. Kurokawa Onsen Village is about four hours north of me, up in Kumamoto. It’s pretty close to Mt. Aso, the volcano that caused the massive Kumamoto earthquake last year, so I was surprised that everything was open and functional.

I had volunteered to drive and so early in the afternoon I set off with my friends Amber and Dasha. Dasha, who is from Siberia, spent a lot of the ride telling us about what life is like in Russia, and what she thinks of working as a TV personality in Japan (she’s the co-host of a local show about travel and food). The whole thing made me want to book a ticket to Siberia immediately, and I think Amber felt the same. It was also nice to talk with someone who wasn’t a teacher, which is a rarity these days. Anyway, we were having a lovely time when we entered the Mt. Aso Geopark. It was stunningly beautiful – the mountains were covered in yellow grass, and the clear weather meant we could see the whole mountain range. It felt a bit like being on another planet, like a set they could use for Star Wars or something. Dasha said it reminded her of home.

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There are worse places for your car to break down

As we were appreciating the scenery my car made a rather ominous sound and came to a stop, much to my surprise. We were a bit confused, and since none of us knew much about cars we fussed around a bit before managing to get the hood up, all on the side of a two-lane mountain road. After much googling we decided that my car had probably overheated after I pushed it a bit too hard up some serious hills. Remember, my car has a pretty tiny engine, and I had not paid close enough attention in my haste to get to our destination. We let the engine cool a bit, took some pictures, and then slowly made our way out of the park. Luckily everything was fine after that, and we made it to the village with no further problems.

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My weekend companions

When we arrived in Kurokawa we bought a pass for three onsens (hot springs) each, which was about $12. The village has tons of options to choose from, and after driving I sort of left the decisions up to the others. They decided on an outdoor bath and we walked through the town to find our first stop. The town was really cute, full of tiny shops, a pretty river, and lots of charm. The onsen was equally lovely, and to our delight we were the only ones there! Normally you’re not allowed to take your camera anywhere near the baths, since everyone wanders around nude, but we took the opportunity to snap a few shots of our surroundings.

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A lovely rotenburo all to ourselves

Kurokawa is pretty high up in the mountains, and at the end of January it was pretty cold. Most onsen require that you rinse yourself off before getting in, and they usually provide a special area to do so. This particular onsen had the rinsing area on the opposite side of the pool from the changing rooms, so we had to run to the other side in the freezing cold, to douse ourselves in scalding water, before getting in the super hot pool. It was quite the experience. After the initial shock it was lovely, and we spent a nice long time lazing in the water before we decided it was time to move on.

We dried off, put our clothes back on, and set out to meet up with the others at an onsen a bit further away. The lovely thing about hot springs in the winter is that they leave you feeling warm from the inside out, so when we walked around town this time we felt nice and cozy. We stopped by the river, now lit up, and took in our surroundings before getting back into the car.

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Onsen number two was a bit fancier, and involved a decent walk from the hotel to the water. We met up with most of our friends, about 12 of us in total, and practically took over the place. There were only a few people there when we arrived, but by the time we left (nearly 2 hours later) we were the only ones left. I’ve been told that large groups of foreigners speaking English sometimes make Japanese onsen-goers uncomfortable, so this wasn’t entirely a surprise. We tried our best to keep our voices quiet and respectful, but the sheer numbers were a bit much, I think. In any event  this led to us once again having the place to ourselves, and I had a great time chatting with everyone. This particular onsen had a nice view of the stars, and a second pool overlooked a small waterfall. Not too shabby.

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After a while we realized we had stayed way longer than we had intended, and the place was about to close. We quickly packed up and made our way to the cabin we had rented for the night. The rest of our group had already arrived and started preparing a nabe (hot pot) dinner. I’m convinced there’s nothing nicer on a winter evening than a Japanese nabe, especially when surrounded by friends. There are versions of this type of communal hot pot dinner in many Asian countries, and I always enjoy the process (even though I will say that I like the flavor of the Japanese version more than the Vietnamese lau). As we cooked dinner Dasha made spiced wine, and we had a lovely, silly, slightly drunken time.

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Nabe party! Photo by Lindsay

In the morning one of the ladies had thoughtfully brought a waffle iron, so we had a leisurely waffle breakfast, followed by one last onsen. This time we chose a spot overlooking the infamous Mt. Aso. This particular volcano is one of the easiest mountains to recognize – it has a trademark jagged rim, which is both really cool to look at and a bit terrifying to think of, given how recently it went off. But we were far enough away to enjoy the view without too much fear, and so we had a lovely morning soak. By the end of our time in the onsen we were, surprise, alone again. Cameras came out, and we decided to take a few photos. The whole thing was such a strange combination of super Japanese and not at all culturally appropriate, but extremely fun and pretty memorable.

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Onsen #3 – the mountain in the distance is Mt. Aso

Finally it was time to go home. We took a commemorative group photo, hugged goodbye, and hit the road again. My car held up just fine, and we made it back without incident. I was happy to be home and ready to not drive again for a while, but I could easily have spent another day or two soaking in the onsen town. It’s been a few weeks now and I can definitely say I’m ready to go again!

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Old Friends, New Places, Names We Can’t Pronounce – Taiwan Day 3

On our last full day in Taiwan we braced ourselves for another excursion out of the city. But first, we treated ourselves to a Taiwanese-style pancake breakfast down the street from our hostel. It wasn’t really a pancake as I think of them, but more like a Taiwanese version of a breakfast burrito. In any case, it was delicious! We settled into our meal and skyped some friends back in the US before hopping on the train. Once in Taipei Main Station we were surprised to see a familiar face. Aleisha, the health coordinator on our Pac Rim trip, was on a billboard for a Taiwanese university! This does make some sense, as she spent some time studying there not too long ago, but still, what a small world! And as it turns out, we actually knew two people on the billboard – another Pac Rim staff member, Pase, was towards the back. Naturally, we had to snap a few photos to send back to the group.

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Hi, Aleisha! (Pase is off-screen, to the left)

After our surprise run-in with Aleisha and Pase, we finally made it to Jiufeng.

Jiufeng, which seems to have a million different spellings, is an “Old Street” about an hour outside of Taipei. It’s basically a big hill overlooking the ocean, and it’s gotten a reputation for tea houses and street food. In Japan, it’s probably best known as the inspiration for an early scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. If you’ve ever seen the movie, the connection is unmistakable. Stepping onto the lantern-lined streets and delicious-looking foods was like stepping into the film – an effect that was somewhat ruined by the massive crowds and high temperatures.

To escape the heat, Annin and I decided to have tea at one of the many tea houses. We chose one that was well-regarded by Japanese tourists (we figured they knew a thing or two about tea) and went inside. We ordered the standard tea set, and one of the waiters demonstrated how to perform Chinese-style tea ceremony. The tea was a high mountain oolong, and we were told that this tea was meant to be steeped for very short periods of time, in a tiny teapot which held just enough tea for two tiny cups.

You might think that Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies would be fairly similar, but I’d say tea is about the only thing they have in common. Japanese tea ceremony involves hundreds of rules and specific actions one needs to perform. It’s incredibly delicate, and LONG. The tea is always matcha, which is a powdered green tea. Chinese tea ceremony, however, is usually done with tea leaves, and seems less stiff. The tea is made in small teapots, and many cups of tea are made over the course of the ceremony. The first cup is usually for smelling, not drinking, and the whole thing is done over a wooden box, so that you can overflow the teapot with hot water to warm the outside as well. The overall effect is quite nice, and I enjoyed getting a chance to try it for myself. And of course, the tea was delicious.

After we’d had our fill of tea we resumed wandering the streets, but the heat was a bit much and we made frequent stops in air conditioned shops and stalls. Sadly, the heat also took a toll on our stomachs, so we didn’t sample too many of the local foods. After maybe half an hour of walking around we decided to find a cafe with a view and write some postcards before going back to the city. It turned out to be a great idea, and we had a nice time just sitting, taking in the views.

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Finally, it was time to head home. We left just before they lit the lanterns, mostly because we knew the traffic would get crazy afterward, and we’d both seen lanterns many times before (I’ve written about them in Nagasaki and Hoi An). Getting on the bus was a bit of an adventure, since the bus driver didn’t seem happy that we only wanted to go to the train station, rather than all the way back to Taipei. We were actually a bit worried he wouldn’t stop at the station. The ride up to Jiu Feng had been a bit rough on my stomach and nerves (Taiwan drives on the right, but after months of driving on the left I was convinced we were in the wrong lane). The drive down was no easier on the stomach, and the bus driver spent most of the time tailgating someone on a motorbike. Needless to say we were very relieved when the bus stopped at the station.

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In the end, I’m glad we went to Jiu Feng, but I can’t say I’d ever want to go back. It’s made quite a name for itself with tourists and is just a bit too crowded for my tastes. I think I wanted to like it more than I actually did, but I know if I hadn’t gone, I’d have regretted it. And now that I’ve checked it off my list I can move on. Overall I really liked Taiwan and would love to go back. But maybe next time I’ll go in the winter.

 

To the US and Back Again

Hello everyone! I’m sorry I’ve been seriously slacking on my updates. When life falls into its normal routine I run out of steam to write, and of course  I forget that what I see as everyday occurrences might actually be interesting to everyone back home. But now the weather’s warming up and we’re approaching festival season again, so hopefully I’ll have plenty to write about in the coming months.

In the meantime, I’m back from a quick trip home to the US, where I actually saw many of my usual readers, which was great. While I had originally planned on going to Indonesia with my friend Selina, a few things changed back home and I decided that it would be a good idea to use that rare stretch of time off to spend time with family instead.

In truth I was a bit worried about going home. I talk a big game about my love of travel and adventure, and I know I make it sound like I never want to go back, but that’s simply not true. While I spent most of my adolescence dreaming about escaping St. Louis, once that actually happened I started to realize that home wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, every time I come home I find new things to love, and it becomes harder and harder to leave again. That doesn’t mean I’ve decided to move home forever, but I’ve accepted that St. Louis is home, and going home is nice sometimes. And while I’ve generally enjoyed my time here in Japan, the month or so prior to my trip was a bit of a struggle. I was really worried that if I came home, I wouldn’t be able to return to Japan with quite the right amount of “genki” spirit.

I’m relieved to say that wasn’t the case. Sitting here at my desk I’m actually doing a lot better than I was before I took my trip. Reminding myself of what awaits me when I eventually come home was nice, and sort of helped me reframe my thinking about the things I’ve found difficult in Japan. Of course I’ve always known this wasn’t permanent, and that I should appreciate living here while I can, but that’s not the sort of idea that’s top of mind when I can’t find decent cheese in the grocery store, or when walking into a shop causes the clerks to panic and suddenly disappear. These things will still annoy and upset me to varying degrees, as will all of the cultural blunders and miscommunications at work and with friends, but at least for now it’s not so bad.

And honestly, the month I’ve had since returning to Japan has been pretty good. I’ve had enough classes to be busy but not overwhelmed, spent time catching up with friends near and far, checked out some new places (photos to come) and have generally had a very chill time. As summer approaches my days will soon get significantly sweatier and possibly busier, with speech contest season on the horizon, but for now, life’s good.

So thank you to everyone who took the time to see me while I was home. The food was great and the company was even better. I miss you all and promise to be back again before too long. But until then, it’s time to soak up as much Japan as I can.