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 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.

Holy Sakura, Batman: It’s Cherry Blossom Season!


Hello again! Once again my post is waaaay behind schedule. I’ve had almost nothing to do at work for the past few weeks, but somehow I’ve found that it’s hardest to get work done when I have more free time. I also feel more tired and less enthusiastic about my job when there’s nothing to do, so I’m very excited for classes to start back up after exams! If you’re wondering why there’s a long break for me in the middle of spring, it’s because the Japanese school schedule is pretty different from what we use in America. The school year actually starts in April and ends in March, so my school has just started a new year, and we’re already at midterms. Actually, when I told them that my sister was graduating last week the other teachers were a bit surprised… It’s a very different system.

If you’ve ever watched Japanese TV or anime you might have noticed that there’s a particular event related to the start of a new school year, or graduation, and that’s sakura (cherry blossoms). Every year the sakura bloom in spring, and the whole country goes nuts. There’s a national sakura forecast to predict when they will bloom in each part of the country, a litany of sakura-themed/flavored items you can buy, and of course tons of “hanami” parties to go to. Hanami literally means “flower viewing,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. On weekends and in the evenings friends, family or coworkers gather in a park to sit under the sakura and eat a picnic or have a barbecue. Japan’s lack of open container/public drinking laws means alcohol is usually involved, and I’ve frequently heard the whole setup described as “getting drunk in a park season” by fellow foreigners. It’s all good fun.

At night the parks are often lit up specially for the sakura, and the atmosphere just can’t be beat. The only trick is, the sakura only bloom for a short time, a few days or a week. So everyone tries their best to get out and see them, which can lead to very crowded parks. But my friends took me to a local spot with far fewer people than the “famous” park farther away, and we managed to find a clear spot to enjoy the flowers in peace and eat my friend’s amazing homemade burritos. Not exactly traditional, but certainly delicious.

I spent almost every evening for a week hanging out in a park, and it was great. But the really fun thing about cherry blossoms is that they’re everywhere. Driving around town I noticed that all of the trees I’d previously thought might be dead were in fact sakura, and for that one week they were gorgeous. Sadly that is the downside of sakura – they’ve pretty much been bred so that they have an abundance of flowers and very few leaves, but everything falls after a week and the trees spend most of the year looking dead. But that’s also part of the Japanese aesthetic appeal. The idea of “aware” (pronounced phonetically, ah-wa-rae), translated sometimes as “fleeting beauty” is epitomized by sakura. It’s hard to describe exactly, but it sort of means that  something is more beautiful because we know it’s temporary, and it is at its most beautiful as it disappears. In the case of sakura, this means the falling petals, which look a bit like snow if you catch a nice gust of wind. I remember studying this idea in my Japanese aesthetics course in college, but I feel like I understand it much better after having embraced the Japanese sakura fever.

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I think this is the face of “Sakura Fever” (though technically those aren’t all sakura)

A more local tradition that I was lucky enough to see this Sakura season was the Miyazaki Jingu Sakura Yabusame. Yabusame is a type of event that’s popular in my part of Kyushu. It’s essentially an archery demonstration on horseback. I’d been to one before in Kagoshima, where they trained a junior high student to race his horse down a track and shoot at three targets. The poor kid fell every time.  But at the Miyazaki Yabusame nobody fell, and in fact there were probably about 10 archers of varying ages. They raced their horses down a track lined with cherry blossom trees, which in any other year would have been dropping petals as they raced down the track, but this year they were a bit sparse. Sadly I don’t think I’ll get another shot at this particular event, since it is usually held on a weekday, and this year the calendar just happened to line up so that it was on a Sunday. Seeing everyone in their Yabusame costumes was really cool, and of course the skill involved was amazing. I also loved the people watching.

But now the sakura have all fallen. The bright pink sakura flavored pepsi is gone from stores, the students are back in school, and people have stopped visiting the parks at night. I was told this year was a bit of a sad showing for sakura due to the strange weather we’ve had (an unusually mild winter), but I thought it was lovely. I’m so glad I’ll have another shot at it next year.

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.

A Magical Halloween in Osaka

So I’ve been in the middle of writing this post for quite a while, and while I said I was waiting for photos from my friend really I was just procrastinating. But now that the students are on winter vacation, and I’m just waiting for my own vacation to start, I thought I’d finally finish my story about Osaka trip #2.

A few months ago I happened to send a message to a friend of mine from Pac Rim. We hadn’t talked in a while but something made me think of her. I suppose the universe was sending me a sign, because as luck would have it my friend was preparing for a trip to Japan, and of course we should meet up! And even better, the end of her trip fell on a holiday and a day I didn’t have classes, so we decided to meet in Osaka for a long Halloween weekend.

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Dotonburi – one of the most famous streets in Osaka

While I’d been through Osaka on my trip to Kyoto, I hadn’t really spent any time in the city itself. I was excited to explore one of Japan’s biggest cities and see a few friends. I flew out of Miyazaki on Friday, Ocotber 30, just in time to meet up with friends for Halloween the next day. My friend Sam and I wandered around on Saturday morning and had a lovely bagel breakfast at a shopping center near our airbnb (which we both tried for the first time and were very pleased with!). And while a bagel breakfast may not be the most exciting thing to all of you back home, but living in a country where decent (read – non-squishy) bread is hard to come by, it was absolutely amazing. I mean, the bagels were mediocre, but a mediocre bagel is far superior to no bagel, and they had a whole selection of uniquely Japanese flavors. We bought a whole bunch to sample later, and found that the soy milk and edamame bagel was surprisingly delicious, whereas purple sweet potato and white chocolate was a bit of a dud.

In any event, after breakfast we met up with Annin and set off in search of Liberty Osaka, a “human rights museum” that a friend had recommended. It wasn’t the easiest thing to find, but it was certainly interesting. There were exhibits detailing the various minority groups in Japan and the discriminatory practices and events that they have faced (and in many cases continue to face). While Japan is often presented as a homogenous and peaceful society, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that never really gets discussed. For example, the people of Okinawa are not considered to be Japanese, as they belong to their own ethnic group, the Ryukyuan. For a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here they have historically been discriminated against for their heritage, and today you can still find apartments that refuse Okinawan tenants, and many people do not consider them to be Japanese. Similar things are said of the Ainu, an ethnic minority from northern Japan. And of course there are tensions between Japan and Korea, and the museum went into great detail about the hardships Koreans  and people of Korean descent have faced in Japan. I really wish my Japanese reading skills were a bit better so I could have read all of the displays (the English translations were a bit sparse) but ultimately I was glad I visited, and would recommend it to anyone who finds themselves with a bit of extra time in Osaka.

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After the museum it was time to get ready for Halloween! Sam and I were feeling a bit lazy on the costume front, so she wore some cat ears and I dressed as Marty McFly from Back to the Future (it was just after “BttF Day, so it seemed topical enough) because I already had most of the outfit. Annin and her friend got a bit more into the spirit of the holiday, and she had a pretty great “Where’s Waldo” costume. Once we were all dressed and ready we met up with a Japanese friend of Annin’s and went out for okonomiyaki, an Osaka specialty. It’s one of my favorite Japanese foods – essentially a cabbage pancake with whatever savory toppings you want, topped with a variety of sauces. As with most Japanese food it’s hard to explain, but rest assured, it’s delicious.

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Okonomiyaki

Dinner was fun, and it was a great chance to once again practice my Japanese (mostly listening) since Annin’s friend didn’t speak English. Sam and I both studied Japanese at UPS, so we were up for the challenge and understood most of what was said.

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Halloween in Osaka

After dinner we hit the streets to find a few other local JETs, and boy were we in for a treat. Based on my students’ knowledge of the holiday, I didn’t really think Japan did Halloween. But it turns out the big cities are pretty into it. We were in the heart of Osaka and people were out in droves, donned in amazing costumes.

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A group of Totoros

Lots of people did group costumes, which was probably my favorite thing because it was so different from what you’re probably thinking. Rather than going as a group with a theme, like the gang from Scooby Doo or something, with everyone as a different character, Japanese group costumes are all the same. So you’d have a group of six Shaggy’s, or, as was often the case, about 20 Where’s Waldo’s. Waldo’s were wandering the streets in droves. It was quite a sight. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we decided to grab drinks at a local conbini and just people watch for a few hours.

After a while we made our way to a “zombie bar” to meet a few more people, but Sam and I had a busy day coming up and decided to call it quits a bit early. We walked home through the hoards of costumed people (and cars!) and went to bed.

The next day was the centerpiece of our plans – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! We took the train to Universal Studios Japan in the morning (after a breakfast of leftover bagels) and stood in a long line to get into the park, followed by another long line to get our timed entrance tickets for the Harry Potter area. Even though it was the day after Halloween, the holiday spirit was still going strong. Lots of visitors were wearing costumes, so Sam and I bought “face stickers” to join in on the fun. We wandered around the park and rode the Back to the Future ride while we waited for our entrance time, and  then we made our way to Hogwarts.

So USJ’s Harry Potter theme park is basically set up as Hogsmeade, with lots of shops and butterbeer galore, with the Hogwarts castle perched on a hill overlooking it all, with the great lake beside. Now, unlike American theme parks, Japanese parks seem to focus on atmosphere and shows over actual rides, which meant there were only two rides in the Harry Potter area, and one was a kid’s roller coaster. The line for the main ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” was at least two hours long, so we decided to get some food at the Three Broomsticks before getting in line.

Every detail of the park was amazingly well done. Even the food was pretty authentic-looking. And of course we had to buy ourselves a frozen butterbeer (in the collector’s mug!) while we waited in line. As expected, it was super sweet, but we both managed to finish ours in the two hour line.

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The line for the main ride takes you back behind the castle (the ride is in the castle) and you go through the Herbology gardens as you wait, which is nice. Sam and I had far too much fun waiting in line, catching up on each other’s lives and enjoying the nice weather. Sam was an especially great sport considering that the week before her host family had actually taken her to USJ, and this was her second trip in as many weeks. But her host family weren’t big Harry Potter fans, nor were they serious shoppers, so she said she was happy to go back a second time with me, and we really had a great time.

Finally we got to the ride – once the line takes you into the castle you have to drop your bags in a locker, then you walk through the castle up to the ride itself. You walk through Dumbledor’s office, past a Japanese-speaking Harry, Ron and Hermione, and onto the ride. Now, I’m not a huge fan of roller coasters. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever really ridden a proper roller coaster. But this ride was FUN. It’s so amazingly well done. You take off on broomstick to follow Harry through Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, into the Chamber of Secrets and through the Quidditch stadium. You’re on a roller coaster track but of course the whole thing’s inside, and switches between 3D screens (they give you Potter-style 3D glasses at the beginning) and animatronics and awesome sets. I can’t explain it properly, but it was soooo amazing and fun. Honestly, I got off the ride and seriously considered getting back into that 2 hour line to go again. So much fun!

But it was getting dark so we decided to check out the shops instead, since both of us needed gifts to bring home. We slowly made our way through the shops and out of the park, just in time for the “Zombie Nights” event to start, and we wanted no part in that. Literally, as soon as we stepped out of the rides area and into the shops that lined the exit, the lights in the park went out and people started screaming, presumably because a hoard of zombies had just appeared. Fun, but not my thing. We left the park and ate a takoyaki dinner (fried balls of dough and octopus) and went back to our hotel.

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Leaving on the (not quite) Hogwarts Express)

Day three was all about the shopping. Sam and I discovered that we were shopping soulmates while we were on Pac Rim, and when we get together it’s hard to stop us from shopping. We had a pretty fun time looking around some of the major shopping areas in Osaka before we stumbled upon the “Gudetama Cafe.” Gudetama is literally a “lazy egg” character, and he’s super popular right now. It’s hard to explain, but Japan really loves cute mascots, even when they don’t really represent anything except themselves, as is the case with Gudetama or Hello Kitty. But in any case, we ate at the cafe before Sam had to take off to return to the US. It was great seeing her, and we were both super happy that our schedules lined up so well.

I still had another day and a half in Osaka, but I’ll save that for next time, since this post got pretty long, as they tend to do. Next time: A bit of culture at Osaka Castle and Nara Deer Park.

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Next time, Osaka Castle