Ladies’ Weekend at Kurokawa Onsen Village

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

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Walking down the street in Kurokawa

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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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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