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.

 

A Thirsty Waterfall Hike and Some Magical Watermelon Juice – Day 2 in Taiwan

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When planning our trip to Taiwan, Annin and I were both set on getting out of the city for at least a day. Taiwan being a fairly small place, it’s known mostly for its major city, Taipei. And while we were interested in exploring the city, we had also heard some pretty great things about the Taiwanese countryside. If you travel just an hour outside of the city, you have easy access to some gorgeous mountain hiking and beautiful coastline rock formations. After a bit of research Annin found a particularly appealing waterfall hike, and so on Friday morning we set out for Sandiaoling.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

Our day began with a bit of a frantic scramble for both train tickets and breakfast. While the subway system is super efficient with a train every few minutes, getting outside of the city requires a bit more planning, and the Taiwan Railway website isn’t super intuitive. We tried speaking with someone at our hostel, but unfortunately by the time we asked, the English speaking staff had already gone home. In any case, we eventually pinpointed what we hoped was the correct train, and made our way to the station early in the morning. We bought our tickets, and had half an hour to find food before our train left.

While Annin did a lot of the research into where we would go, the job of finding out what to eat fell to me. I had read about a bagel shop near the main train station and since we were already there, I was determined to find it. Bagels are a rare treat when you live in Asia, and these ones looked pretty promising. A few things I didn’t account for were 1) the fact that, as we had discovered the day before, google maps is not the most accurate in Taiwan, and 2) once we actually found the place, it took them a good 20 minutes to make my cream cheese and lox sandwich. Not great when we were short on time! They handed us our bagels just in time for us to run back to the train, and oh man they smelled so good. Sadly, eating on public transportation is sort of looked down on, so we didn’t actually get to eat them for an hour and a half. It was pretty rough.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

In any case, we took two trains: Taipei Main Station to Ruifeng, then Ruifeng to Sandiaoling. The trains were really crowded, but only one other group got off at our station, and they seemed to have done so by mistake. We took a few minutes at the station to eat our bagels, which were just as delicious as I’d hoped, and set off to find the waterfall hike.

The hike we chose, Sandiaoling Waterfall Hike, is a bit off the beaten path. Most tourists opt for the much easier Shi Fen Waterfall, which is sometimes called the “Niagara Falls of Taiwan.” That hike is much shorter, and closer to a train station. But we were looking for a challenge, and were delighted to find that there was almost nobody on the trail, whereas the whole crowd on our train was likely headed to Shi Fen.. We probably ran into a total of 10 people over the course of 3 hours or so.

The trail took us through a lush tropical forest, over two rope bridges, up a particularly steep set of stairs, and past three lovely waterfalls. I think that the water was a bit low due to the time of year, but we still thought the falls were beautiful, and the surrounding forest was spectacular. I would highly recommend the hike to anyone visiting Taiwan.

But as beautiful and peaceful as the hike was, it was also incredibly hot and humid. We really underestimated the weather, and neither of us packed quite enough water. By the tail end of the trail we were pretty thirsty, and a bit worried about finding drinks. While Taipei has a convenience store on every corner, the hike was really in the middle of nowhere. From the trailhead we had seen a sleepy little town, but nothing that resembled a store from the outside. Once we made our way off the trail and into town, it didn’t look very promising, and I was feeling more than a bit dehydrated. Just as I was starting to worry, we stumbled across a hotel with some tables set outside. The owner was chatting with someone, and we tried to ask about water. Of course, we don’t speak Mandarin, and she definitely didn’t speak English, but holding up the empty water bottles seemed to get the message across. She said something and brought us two bottles of homemade watermelon juice, which was close enough for us. Now, I’m not usually a watermelon fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything as good as this watermelon juice. It was pure heaven, and the woman was clearly pleased we liked it so much. Once we’d paid for the juice she brought out a kettle and refilled our water bottles for free. We left with quenched thirsts and a serious appreciation for her kindness.IMG_7535

As we walked back to the train, we decided that rather than continue on to Jiu Feng, a nearby village, we would head back into the city to change and have a chill evening. We were exhausted and more than a little sweaty after the hot hike. And the universe seemed to approve of our choice, since right as we made the decision the sky opened up and let out a tropical downpour. Now we really wanted to change, and so we took the train back into Taipei.IMG_7433

The rest of our evening was centered around food. We sought out a famous beef noodle soup restaurant and followed that with a long-anticipated treat – mango shaved ice. It’s just as tasty as it looks, being made up of mostly condensed milk and fruit, and a pat of panna cotta on top. Fabulous!

IMG_7434After eating we stopped by Longshan Temple, an old confucian temple near our hostel. It was a beautiful place, but what really struck me was the number of people out playing Pokemon Go. I haven’t played the game myself, and don’t really plan on playing, but it seemed such a shame to me that in such a beautiful and culturally important place, people were all staring at their phones. But I suppose to each his or her own.

We rounded out the evening with another trip to The 58 Bar and called it a night. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good day.

A Trip to Taipei

 

Summer in Japan is a great time for festivals and fun, as noted in my last entry, but it’s also a great time to get away from Japan. Students in Japan don’t have quite the same summer break as we do in the states, but there is definitely more time off over the summer than at other times of year. Sadly this time off is mostly just for students, not teachers, but with a bit of creative scheduling I was able to plan a trip to Taiwan with my frequent travel buddy, Annin.

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Statues in front of Taipei Main Station

Taiwan is a place I’ve had on my “must-visit” list for quite a while now. An island off the coast of China, Taiwan has a complicated history and lots of fascinating culture. To seriously oversimplify, Before WWII Japan occupied Taiwan and used it as a Japanese colony, and after WWII it was “returned” to the Republic of China (ROC). Then, when the communist party ousted the ROC a faction of nationalists, known as the Kuomintang, fled China and took over Taiwan, using it as the base for the ROC, which they claimed was the true/rightful government of China. What followed was, as I said, a very complicated and often bloody history. Today Taiwan maintains a tenuous relationship with China, one I cannot even begin to explain because I don’t entirely understand it myself. There are also remnants of Japanese occupation all over the place, and I remarked many times that Taipei felt a bit like a grittier version of Tokyo. And to be clear, I view that as a positive thing. Japan is awesome, easy to live in, and very safe, but I’ve found that I miss the hustle of a place like Can Tho. There’s an energy to a place that’s still growing and developing, and Japan sometimes lacks this, in my opinion.

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Taiwan is known for delicious food, but I’m not so sure about this place…

In any event, Taiwan has seen a serious boost in tourism in recent years, and it’s developed a bit of a name for itself among those who are interested in traveling within Asia. The food scene is legendary, and while the capital city of Taipei is certainly just as urban as Osaka or Singapore, the surrounding area remains far less crowded, with gorgeous coastline rock formations and tons of hiking trails.

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Ximending at night

With all of this in mind I set off to meet Annin in Taipei. Upon arrival it was clear that Taipei would not be so difficult to navigate – signage in the airport was clear, people were super friendly, and transportation was easily accessible. I took a bus to the center of town,  bought myself an MRT pass, and made my way to the hostel. We chose to stay in Ximending, a shopping district which seems to be the center of youth culture in Taipei. There were hundreds of shops blaring music and blasting air conditioning into the hot summer streets, and the area was hopping well into the night. Coming from my sleepy little town in Japan, I was both surprised and thrilled to find myself once again in such an urban setting. Looking back on the trip I’m not sure I’d choose to stay in Ximending again, but the proximity to the subway and low price of the hostel were both pretty nice for a short trip.

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In front of the National Palace Museum

On our first full day in Taipei it was a bit overcast, so we decided to check out the National Palace Museum. This museum holds the largest collection of Chinese art in the world, and is probably one of the most visited places in Taipei for tourists. Despite the weather and summer travel season, we lucked out and it wasn’t too crowded. The museum’s collections are really amazing, though we somehow missed the two most famous pieces. Regardless, we both walked away feeling much more cultured, and also ravenously hungry. We decided to try for one of the city’s most famous dishes – xiaolong bao, or soup dumplings.

The restaurant we tried to go to initially, the original din tai fung, had a 40 minute wait, which we weren’t quite up for. So we walked around the corner and found another highly-recommended restaurant around the corner, where we were seated immediately. The food was delicious! We ate xiaolong bao, steamed pork buns, seasonal veggies, and shumai. All of it was amazing, and I was in heaven.

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A mural on the side of a bubble tea shop that caught my eye

After our super filling lunch we decided to stay in the city and find the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. We wandered for quite a while circling a university because Google Maps said it was somewhere inside. After almost half an hour of this we realized that the building on the map was not in fact the famous memorial, but the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Gymnasium. No wonder the students were giving us strange looks…. Moral of the story is, don’t trust Google Maps abroad.

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Delicious tea and scones at Smith&Hsu

Anyway, after failing to find the memorial we instead made our way towards Taipei 101, which at one point was the tallest building in the world.  On our way we happened upon a fancy tea shop called Smith & Hsu, where we had the most amazing tea and scones. It was a much-needed pick-me-up after our memorial search, and we were both super happy to get a break from the heat. I had read about the shop on Lady Iron Chef, one of my favorite sources for food recommendations in Asia (I have yet to be disappointed by any of their recommendations). The atmosphere was sleek and modern, and the tea selection was really impressive!

After our tea break we walked in and around Taipei 101, though we decided against a trip to the top. It’s a pretty pricey elevator ticket, and we both felt that we’d visited enough tall towers to have a good idea of what we would see. Far more interesting to me was the Eslite bookstore around the corner, which had a larger selection of English language books than I’d seen anywhere else in Asia. Somehow I was able to limit myself to a single collection of Ray Bradbury short stories (probably because I was doing this trip carry-on only), but it was tough. Honestly, the store was so nice I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a highlight of the trip!

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Selfies are a struggle. But hey, look – Taipei 101!

By the time we finished up at Taipei 101 it was time for another meal, and so we hopped on the subway and went to Yong Kang for some street food. We had the most amazing scallion pancakes at a tiny shop with a line around the block. They were super simple, but possibly the best thing I ate in Taipei. Part of that might have been due to the setting. We bought our food at the stall and sat in a nearby park to eat, which is something I did a lot in Vietnam, but which is seen as a bit strange in Japan (unless you’re at a festival). I had really missed the laid back feeling of hanging out in a park at night, eating cheap street food and just people watching.

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Delicious scallion pancakes

 

And finally it was time to head for home, but not before a drink! It turns out there’s a really cool bar in Ximending that only sells Taiwanese beer. I think it’s owned by some expats, but the sheer number of locally made beers was really impressive. There were lots of interesting options, and they were nice enough to give recommendations, since I know almost nothing about beer. So we settled in for a drink and watched a bit of Olympic archery (which was far more interesting than I anticipated).

All in all it was a solid start to the trip, and I’ll tell you all about the rest of our time in Taiwan next week.

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Locally brewed beers at The 58 Bar

How to Spend a Summer in Japan

The start of my second year in Japan marks the end of my first full Japanese summer. Summer is a fantastic time to be in Japan (despite the high temperatures and killer humidity) as it’s the height of festival season. Everywhere in Japan, from tiny towns to major cities, has its own festival, and if I had the energy I could spend every weekend watching fireworks and eating festival food. It’s a nice change from winter, which gets pretty quiet as everyone hides inside under their kotatsu.

Since I’ve only done this once, I’m no expert, but in my experience I’ve learned there are a few key aspects to having a great summer in Japan. Below I’ll walk you through my list of things to do for summer.

Matsuri

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Okage Matsuri with friends. Meagan dressed us all in yukata!

First and foremost the above-mentioned festivals, known in Japanese as “matsuri.” They’re everywhere, and most of them follow the same format of performance, street food, fireworks. But with a bit of digging you can find some really interesting matsuri, since they often celebrate a specific event, product, holiday or crop. In Miyakonojo we kicked off the matsuri season with the Okage Matsuri – giant lanterns were lit and carried in procession, taiko performances were held at a local shrine, and it was generally just good fun. Lanterns are always a good bet for a pretty night out, and you can find lots of lantern festivals, going into fall as well. There’s also the Takanabe lantern festival in October, where local kids decorate paper lanterns, and if you show up early you can help light them. The highlight of the Takanabe festival is their “river of light,” with bamboo lanterns set up to look like a flowing river down the hill. It’s gorgeous.

Wear a Yukata

If you get a chance, wearing a yukata to a summer festival is a cool way to engage in the local culture. While there has been a lot of discussion in the US about cultural appropriation when it comes to clothing, while in Japan it’s a bit of a different story. My Japanese friends and colleagues were thrilled to hear I had an interest in kimono, and whole events are organized around dressing foreigners up. Of course, you should always be respectful and try to learn about the piece of culture you are participating in.

Beer Gardens

Spending time outdoors is a summer must, and with the Japanese heat it’s usually best done at night, preferably with a cool drink in hand. Beer gardens abound in Japan, and are usually set up as “nomihoudai” or all-you-can-drink. Make a reservation, and show up with your friends or coworkers prepared to have a good time. One of my favorite summer memories this year was of a night at a beer garden with my Japanese teacher and her other students (my friends and fellow ALTs). The beer garden was on the roof of a hotel, so we had a lovely view of the sunset over town. And our teacher was super prepared – she brought silly games and punishments for losing, such as silly straw glasses and fake mustaches. It was such a fun night!

Fireworks

Japan is all about the fireworks! All festivals will have at least a small fireworks display, and it’s perfectly legal to buy your own. On a few occasions I went out and lit fireworks with friends, and it was always a good time. Plus, it’s a great way to amaze most international friends – fireworks (even sparklers) are illegal in many parts of the world!

See Some Nature

It’s summer, so you have to get outside! Japan, as always, is all about seasonal flowers, and so there are often gardens set up for viewing. Early summer is hydrangeas, and there’s a full hydrangea park in my area. Grab your camera and picnic gear and go enjoy some beautiful scenery.

Camping is also a great option. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m planning a camping trip for next month to tie in with a local fire festival. Last year the festival was rained out, so fingers crossed I get to see it this year!

Take a Roadtrip

If you have access to a car, Japan is green and gorgeous in the summer, and a roadtrip is a great way to see the countryside. Seriously, Japan has so many vivid shades of green I’d never seen before, it is stunning.

Go Swimming

A summer classic just about everywhere. Japan being an island, you can usually get to the beach if that’s what you want, but my favorite swimming hole is Sarugajo Gorge, over in Kagoshima. It takes a bit of a hike to get to the swimming area, but the water is clear and the area is gorgeous. I’ve heard from several ALTs that this is their favorite place in all of Japan, and it’s easy to see why.

And that’s about it. With so many great options and only so many weekends, the hardest part of summer is finding the time to do everything. I’ve still got a few weeks left, and I intend to do my best to get out and do as much as I can before the weather turns cold again.

Lanterns, Revisited

Lanterns in Nagasaki
Lanterns in Nagasaki

[Note: I wrote this up almost a month ago, but somehow never got around to posting it. Apologies for the delay!]

It’s amazing to think that a little over a year ago I embarked on my first solo trip. It feels like ages ago. A few weeks ago it was once again the lunar new year, celebrated in Vietnam as “Tet” and other parts of Asia as “Chinese New Year.” Japan, like much of the rest of Asia, sees the New Year as one of the most important holidays, but moved the date in line with the Gregorian calendar in the 1800s. But while China, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan use the same calendar these days as well, the lunar calendar is still used for holidays and religious celebrations (just like in Judaism, though they do disagree on when the new year is).

While Japan as a whole doesn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year anymore (though they do have holidays that still work on a lunar calendar) there is one part of the country that does: Nagasaki. The port city of Nagasaki was the country’s most prominent center of trade, and was in fact the only city that remained open to outsiders during Japan’s period of isolation. Because of its proximity to the rest of East Asia, and its status as a gateway to the outside world, it has long catered to outside influences in a way the rest of Japan still often resists. The population of foreigners and people of foreign descent is also much higher in Nagasaki than other areas. And it’s for this reason that they hold a Chinese New Year Lantern Festival every year.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

When my friends told me about the festival I pretty much decided on the spot that I would go. I loved the feeling of Tet and Chinese New Year in other parts of the world, and missed that atmosphere living in Japan. I also heard good things about the lanterns themselves, which turned out to be really beautiful. In fact, they were very similar to those that the Missouri Botanical Gardens used during their own lantern festival.

In any case, I booked a hotel back in November (Japan is not a great place for last minute travel decisions, especially if there’s an event) and invited my neighbor. When the date of the festival got closer, my neighbor said she couldn’t go, but luckily the festival is a popular event, and it wasn’t hard to convince other friends to go.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

So on Thursday, February 11 I drove up to Nagasaki with my friends Mei and Eddy. We had the Thursday off for a national holiday and decided to take the Friday as well and make it a long weekend. Nagasaki is around a four or five hour drive from where I live, but to hear my coworkers talk you’d think it was more like 10 or 12. I’ve learned that Americans tend to think a lot less of long car trips, since our country is massive and we can basically drive across the whole thing (and many of us do). I mean, Nagasaki is about as far from Miyakonojo as Kansas City is from St. Louis, and I’d barely consider that a road trip. But Japan, being a series of not-so-big islands, really isn’t as on board with the road trip idea in general. Also, speed limits are waaaaay lower in Japan than in the US, and highways are almost all toll roads, which all serves as a bit of a barrier for travel. Regardless, we were determined to make it work.

After a full morning of driving, with a necessary gas/ice cream stop or two along the way, we made it to our hostel in Nagasaki. If you’re a traveler of the hostel-going variety and find yourself in Nagasaki, I’d definitely recommend AKARI, which was right on the edge of Chinatown, walking distance from all of the excitement. We unloaded and chatted with the very friendly staff before setting out to see the lanterns for ourselves.

Small lanterns lined the streets and shopping arcades, and larger lantern installations sat on street corners and along the river that ran on the outskirts of Chinatown. We made our way through the crowds and happened upon a parade. There were dragon dancers and children playing instruments, and we decided to follow them. They led us to a stage, where we learned there would be Lion Dancing. We settled in and watched a really fun show.

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If you’ve never seen Chinese Lion Dancing before, it’s pretty amazing. Each “lion” is made up of two people, wearing a joined costume. One person mans the head and front legs, while the other plays the back legs and tail. This may sound like the old joke of a two-person donkey costume, but there’s really no comparison. The two dancers move together to give the illusion that the lion is one animal, and they dance, jump, and run round the stage and through the crowd. The costume has puppet components as well, and the lions bat their eyes, waggle their tails and sometimes “eat” gifts thrown in their mouths by audience members. Below is a short clip of a professional lion dance, which is definitely a step above what I saw, but you’ll get the idea.

After the dance we ate a bit of street food and continued to wander and take pictures. Somehow in our wandering we realized it was late, and most of the restaurants were closing. We couldn’t make up our minds about what to eat, so we ended up with a conbini meal. Not ideal, but also not the worst thing in the world. We decided that the next day we would plan out our meals better, and went to bed.

Day two was mostly driving around the outskirts of the city. My friend Mei had developed an interest in kimono, so we spent the day in second hand stores looking for kimonos and the various accessories that go with them. She even convinced me to buy one or two things, which I have no idea when or where I’ll ever use, but they’re really beautiful. I’ve given some thought to taking up sewing, because used kimono are so cheap, and the fabrics used are just gorgeous…. Every time I see one in a shop I can’t help but picture how it’d look as a skirt, or a dress…. but I haven’t worked up the motivation to really pursue this interest.

In any case, after a full day of shopping we found ourselves in Sasebo, a town north of Nagasaki near a US military base. While military bases are often controversial, they do have one uncontested positive point – the plethora of restaurants that pop up around them. We ate an amazing Mexican dinner, and I remembered exactly why I missed cheese so much.

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On our third day in Nagasaki we decided to walk around the city. Nagasaki has a fair amount of tourist attractions if you’re historically or religiously minded, but my friends had been there before and already done most of them. They insisted that they’d go again if I wanted, but they didn’t sound like the idea was super appealing. Instead we wandered the streets and found cool shops, snacks and art, which is pretty much my idea of a good day anyway. We also stopped outside of Dejima, the island where the Dutch were confined to during Japan’s period of isolation. It was tiny, and honestly not much to look at. The ramen shop we found down the street was much more interesting, but it’s hard to compete with a bone marrow and chicken skin broth.

In the evening we drove to the neighboring prefecture, Saga, to check out a lantern festival. Saga is known for its ceramics and massive kilns. In fact, when we showed up we realized that it was a ceramic lantern festival, and the lanterns lined a path up the hill around a very large walk-in kiln. They had set up a cafe inside the kiln just for the festival, so we went on in and drank some coffee. It was an interesting experience, but once we went back outside it had started to rain, so the festival was a bit of a bust.

On our way back to Nagasaki for the night Eddy’s friend contacted him and invited us to dinner back in Sasebo, this time for Thai. We made our way over and had yet another fantastic meal, at a restaurant I was sort of glad we went to at night, since it sat right on a cliff. I’m sure it was a gorgeous view, but I didn’t mind not seeing the drop.

The next day it was time to leave. We packed up and checked out, then made our way to our final destination for the weekend, a massive field of plum trees. February is when the plum blossoms bloom in Japan, and while they are planted in parks and gardens all over, this place was actually a plum farm. There were thousands of trees in various stages of bloom, mostly with white flowers but with a few pink and red throughout. The really lovely thing about plum blossoms, called “ume” in Japanese, is their smell. They have a lovely cinnamon scent, which a friend described to me as “exactly like big red gum.” Standing in a whole grove of them was fabulous.

After snapping some photos and breathing in the cinnamon smell, we left the farm and headed for home. Looking back, I’m glad I made the somewhat impulsive decision to go for this trip. It was a lot of fun, and a great chance to see a unique part of Japan.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with Palm Trees

Hello everyone! I’m working on a blog update about my trip to Europe over the holidays, but it’s been a busy few weeks since returning. I’ve been planning my next few trips, the Miyazaki ALTs had our mid-year conference, and I’ve otherwise been cold an unmotivated. This past weekend I thought I’d finally get it together and do some writing, but was utterly distracted by SNOW!

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Little flurries outside of my apartment

Yes, that’s right. Snow. In Miyazaki. To give you an idea of how strange that was, here’s a picture of a palm tree with a nice dusting of snow:

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I woke up and saw flurries, which was exciting, but had planned on staying in my moderately warm apartment until a friend invited me to go out and see the snow. My Australian and Arizonan friends were very excited. While the snowfall was not particularly impressive by St. Louis standards, it was downright amazing to them. We spent some time walking around a nearby (completely empty) park and taking photos.

We then met up with my friend Noriko for lunch and she said this was the only the second time in her life that she’s seen snow here in Miyakonojo, and the first was thirty years ago. What luck that I got to see it in my first year here!

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Driving around in the snow. Photo by Meagan

After lunch Noriko suggested that we go to a temple in the mountains to see more snow, and we thought this sounded great. We made a very snowy (but not particularly icy or crowded) drive to Kanoya, about an hour away, where we stopped by the White Snake Temple. As the name implies, the temple houses a sacred white snake (there’s a Buddhist legend involving a snake) but of course the snake itself was hibernating, and we were much more interested in the scenery. I’ll have to come back in the summer to see the snake, and also the surrounding mountains when they’re green again.

The temple was gorgeous, and Japan in the snow is amazing. Of course I’ve seen snow before, and way more than this, but the Japanese landscape is so different from that of St. Louis, or even Colorado, and it was pretty cool to see. I’ve definitely resolved that next year I want to se a bit of the Japanese “snow country” up north, where they get so much snow that they’ve installed heated roads.

Two days later the snow here in Miyakonojo has completely melted, and temperatures are back on the rise. Since Japanese schools and homes don’t have the most efficient heating, that’s fine by me, but I’m really glad to have gotten one lovely day of snow. Now, time to get writing!

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Phil, Eddy, Meagan, Noriko and me. Photo by Meagan