Monday, January 25, 2010

Turning 25

Well, it's official, I'm old :) I had a fab weekend with friends to celebrate. On Friday, Nicole, a new but quickly becoming good friend came up to stay with me. I made fajitas while she was driving up and we had some amazing chocolate brownie ice cream for dessert! We watched movies and some episodes of Grey's Anatomy before I talked to some people from home! I got more than one midnight phone call on the eve of my birthday!

The next morning we slept in, and then proceeded to make breakfast omelets with peppers, onions, ham and cheese, croissants and "fruits" granola. I got made fun of more than once this weekend for my new Japan-ism, calling things fruits mix and fruits granola instead of fruit mix and fruit granola. I didn't even realize it wasn't English until people started mocking me! Gonna be a long road back to good vocabulary in July!!

After a leisurely morning and early afternoon, Nicole and I went shopping in Fujinomiya, which really only has a few good stores! We hit up the Uniqlo, which we had an interesting conversation about a few weeks ago during our hike. Uniqlo is short for unique clothes which in turn is interesting because it's a store of basics. Basically everything is solid colors and very few frills. Then we got to talking about how in Japan, that actually is a bit unique because everyone wears such crazy things sometimes! Nicole used to work in retail, so she was my personal shopping assistant! I ended up buying a new outfit for the evening and a few other goodies for the near future (including one work shirt, so I'm justifying the trip)!

Nicole, Me, Kari, and Dion

A few of us headed for the Indian restaurant in Fuji called Namaskar. It's sort of an ALT local favorite. The restaurant is really small, so I was nervous we weren't going to be able to get in (there are no reservations), but it was wide open when we arrived around 7pm!

Above is some of the food you can get there, though the pic is actually from Wednesday when I went out with two girls from my adult conversation class! The bread cut like a pizza is cheese naan, my fave! Many people get the sets when they go there so they can try two different kinds of curry, but I usually just go for one big bowl of curry and my usual cheese naan (sorry, I've realized this has turned into a food entry!)

The other side of the table:
John, Kory, Kelly, Amanda

After dinner we meant to go take purikura (the photo sticker booth things), but for some reason the arcade was closed, so I had to pose in my kitchen later (below)!! After discovering the arcade was closed, we went to a few of the bars around the station. We're starting to discover some new nice places and it's kind of exciting!

On Sunday, I spent all day at the onsen with a few friends and even got a massage! It was a fabulous and relaxing way to end the weekend. I tried to not get too hung up on the fact that I turned 25 despite the comments that I'm halfway to 50! I was a little stressed in general recently about the milestone, but I think that was mostly stress in making the official decision to leave Japan and ultimately probably return home for awhile. Those kind of life decisions at the same time as turning 25, and well, you get an emotional wreck! But by the time my birthday rolled around, I realized it really isn't such a big deal. I feel like I've accomplished a lot in the last 5 years and will continue my daily effort to move my life in a positive direction.

I sometimes get caught up in the fact that I'm on a different track than most all of my high school and college friends, as most of them are married and/or have children and in fleeting moments I want what they have too. But as the grass is always greener on the other side, I'm sure they all have a moment here or there in the opposite direction as well that they had taken time to travel and explore the world while they were young. I guess we all want it all, and it just doesn't work that way! So in the meantime, I'm gonna pose as a young, single and successful woman until I actually figure life out!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Final Decision Made

I have a meeting this week with my vice principal. At that meeting I will turn in this form and it will be official!! Time to move on.

I've been deliberating lately what my next move should be and I go back and forth on a daily basis in which decision is best for me. Some days I think I should move on to another grand international adventure, and other days I think it's time to go home, get my own classroom and have some American adventures! Everyone has a different opinion and I've been seeking them out, though I've come to realize that a million people's advice is really not going to make the decision for me, it's only something I can do and decide what's best for me. I'm hitting the ripe age of 25 this week, and it's got me thinking a lot about "being an adult," the things I've accomplished in the first 25 and what I want in the next 25 and all that stupid sentimental crap. 25 shouldn't be so much different than 24 or 26, but at some point you've got to assess what you're doing and where you're going, so I figure there's no time like the present!! Next week will mark 6 months left in Japan as well, which also has me thinking about all these things. My mind is working overtime, per usual. Thanks to everyone who's weighed in their thoughts and given me things to think about on both sides of the issue!

A New Challenge

Again I'm trailing behind a bit on blog entries, but I suppose I wouldn't be living if I posted everything as it happened :) The weekend before last, I headed out on a 36km (about 22 miles) hike in Hakone National Park. Hakone is a popular tourist destination for Japanese and foreigners alike. It's a hot spring area as well and popular here are black eggs, boiled in the sulfur hot springs there.

The reason I went on this long hike was because I'm beginning a new challenge. I've decided to join a team for the Oxfam Trailwalker.

Oxfam is an British based organization that fights poverty and injustice around the world. They provide emergency aid to places like Haiti and Sudan, as well as ongoing support in countries like India, Cambodia, South Africa, Laos and the Philippines.

The Oxfam Trailwalker is a 100km hike over 48 hours, with basically no sleeping in between. It's completed in teams of 4 and the team must begin and finish together. Below is my team, now unofficially named the Fuji Crew. Each team must raise the equivalent of $1200 for Oxfam, with most teams raising on average of $3000. You can check out how the money is used here if you're interested. So our team started our training with this all day hike.

The Fuji Crew

There are several Trailwalker events around the world, but Japan is said to be one of the three most difficult courses, if not the most difficult. Here's one of the uphills (is upmountain a word?) near the beginning of the hike. We were training on the actual course, from Start to Checkpoint 4 (there are 10 checkpoints in all to get to the end). Hitting checkpoints 1 and 2 were about 9 kilometers each with a lot of uphill and a little bit of downhill.

To stay on course, we have maps that include lots of landmark pictures. They are quite helpful and can be easily printed off the internet. It's a great system. Anyway, this scrapped car was halfway up one of the mountains. It was a landmark on the map and all of us thought it was strange that it was marked on the map. Gave us something to talk about - trying to decide how a car got halfway up a mountain full of trees!

This is one of the tourist hot spots that we hiked through. The Old Tokaido was the highway that used to run from Tokyo to Kyoto. This used to be the checkpoint where people had to go through. Most of the checkpoint has been restored, including the gates, fence, housing for officers and foot soldiers, a prison chamber and a lookout tower. We obviously didn't stop to see it all, but we walked through the gates and the main shopping street.

The gate is located next to Lake Ashi, which has a popular view of Mount Fuji and its floating torii gate. This is a different one than the other pictures I posted. It's much closer to my house. It wasn't super clear that day, so Mt. Fuji is blending in with the sky a bit in this picture, but if you look close in the background you can see the snow-topped Fuji. Also is the pirate tourist ship, apparently a must have at tourist destinations.

We saw a few of these trees like this, upturned so you could see all the roots. Pretty cool.

The third checkpoint was a bit more flat (well, more like lots of downhill and no uphill) and to the 4th checkpoint was pretty much flat walking around the lake. This picture is taken on the same lake as the Mt. Fuji picture above, but near sunset. Though the last checkpoint was flat, it was longer than the others at around 13 kilometers. After climbing earlier in the hike, it was still exhausting and our bodies started aching and blisters forming. But we made it.

We actually didn't take many breaks during the day. It was cold (there was frost and a bit of snow in several parts of the course), so if we stopped for much more than 10 minutes we would start freezing. The actual race is in April, so this shouldn't be as much of a problem then! It was good to keep us moving. We mostly stopped at each of the checkpoints, so about every 2-3 hours. We stopped and ate some of our food and snacks, and obviously hit up some vending machines along the way for water and Gatorade. While we were moving, the temperature wasn't really an issue, especially in the sunny areas.

Here we are exhausted on the train after hiking from 7:15am til about 5pm. It was a long day, but felt awesome that we finished. Still exhausting to think that in the real event, we'll have to do what we did that day 2 more times without sleeping. More training needs to be done so we can get to that level!! Our team will continue working hard and we'll be looking for your support in the months ahead!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Japanese New Year

Alright folks, this one is coming a little late, sorry. After this I'll start posting in the present again, instead of the past :) But I couldn't NOT post about my one and only New Year's in Japan!! So I spent New Year's in Kyoto. After doing the zen garden stuff during the day, I went back to the hostel to freshen up, relax and most importantly warm up! The hostel was having a soba party for New Year's. Most Japanese eat this special kind of soba, called toshikoshi soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles and are popular year round, but are eaten at New Year's for a long life. On top of the noodles is daikon (Japanese radish), green onion and some sort of dried tempura flakes. Some put on a raw egg, but I ate mine without -- still took a picture of someone else's with egg!! I've eaten a lot of things raw in Japan, but I can't bring myself to do the egg!! So I had some soba and watched a little bit of a show that many Japanese watch on New Year's called kohaku uta gassen. It has popular singers and idols perform and most of the younger generation and families tune in. I suppose it's equivalent to watching Dick Clark and watching the ball drop in Times Square for Americans.

After that, I made my way to the hot spot of Kyoto on New Year's and in the center of Gion (the land of geishas). Many people put up their New Year's wishes at the shrine, so I decided to join in on the tradition and put up mine too!
At the year end, many things are burned at the shrines. Many people buy charms for the year for good fortune in business, driving, school exams, love, having babies, etc. At the end of the year they burn them. They were also selling some sort of sticks and people had written on them and they were burning them too...not exactly sure about what that is, but I would assume it has to do with leaving the old year behind. People also buy small pieces of rope and light them on fire and twirl it around to keep it lit. Tradition was that you would keep it lit until you got home and you would light your stove to cook the first New Year's food with it. Kinda cool, though I doubt many of the people doing it were using it for that reason!! Many people also get omikuji, or their fortune for the New Year. I got mine too. Sometimes they have the English translation, but this one didn't, so I have yet to know if I'm going to have a good or bad year according to the Buddhas. Might ask a Japanese friend one of these days....

They also had some sake they were pouring for people. Not sure on this tradition either, but people typically drink sake on New Year's, so apparently this was some special stuff from the shrine... (?). Anyway, I put in 10 yen and got one little sip of sake to end 2009. Got a cool souvenir bowl/plate type thing. It's not really a cup, it's flat...looks sorta like a jewelery dish I suppose.

People could start lining up at 11 pm and they definitely did!! Shortly after that, they stop letting people into the shrine area. There is a HUGE line of people to say their first New Year's prayer, a tradition in Japan. They had police all over to control the crowds and later when we left the shrine, I saw that the main road of Gion was blocked off to traffic and was shoulder to shoulder people and it went back for blocks. All the people were waiting to get into the shrine to pray for happiness and health in the new year. This picture below actually doesn't do it justice. This is inside the shrine, but the line that went out into the street was even more crowded if you can believe it.

At midnight, everyone began cheering, and people rushed up to the shrine to toss in money and say their prayer. I've seen many people do this at uncrowded shrines and it's much less chaotic :) Pretty cool to see though. Watch the video below:

I met a few other foreigners at the shrine around midnight, and they talked me into going out for awhile. We went to an English pub just down the street. We sat and talked til 3 in the morning when the bar closed. I sent lots of text messages home to wish people a Happy New Year and drifted off to sleep until the late hours of the morning (possibly early afternoon in true New Year's fashion).

Though it wasn't the funnest New Year's I've ever had, it was definitely one of the most interesting. It was cool to experience how a different culture approaches the new year. Some customs similar, and some different. My students write about it a lot in their essays, so I actually knew a lot about it before going, so it was cool to experience it and understand the customs and the reasons behind it.

I thought about watching the New Year's first sunrise (another Japanese custom), but I deciding sleeping was better since I wasn't going to get to watch it from a mountaintop or anything cool like that!!

I went to a temple the next day, and there were crowds and crowds of people again, waiting in line to say their prayers and get their fortunes. It seems I always visit Kyoto at the busiest times of the year, but it's interesting to have so many people bustling around such old and historic sights. I actually don't mind it.

So, to all, a Happy Year of the Tiger, which according to Wikipedia is roughly equivalent to Aquarius, so I'm gonna go all out here and say that it's my year :) Ready to take it on in 2010! Wish you all health, wealth, love and happiness in the new year!!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Kyoto Zen

I spent a full day on the train to get from Beppu to Kyoto, and after needed some time to chill!! I spent a full day just going to different zen gardens in Kyoto. Mostly the first day I just checked out a few all at the same temple, Tofukuji. This first one I just happened upon and was unoccupied, so I didn't even have to pay to get in. I think it was closed for the new year. There were a few others wandering in and out, so I figured it was okay to go in!

I had the garden mostly to myself, so it was definitely relaxing!! It also started snowing while I was there. They were such small flakes that my fellow Minnesotans wouldn't have actually called it snow...but it was snow! It didn't stick to the ground or anything and it was nice and sunny still, so it was perfect.

Wishing you a Happy New Year on January 31st.

A few New Year's offerings for Buddha

Next I headed off to one of the other popular gardens, the one below that's got a raked tile design. This one is more popular and was much more crowded. There was also some New Year's ritual going on. The monks there were walking around and chanting something or other, so it was interesting to watch for a bit...but only for a bit since I didn't really know what was going on.

Next, I ventured off to see the one garden that I had looked up before going that I really wanted to see.
Like most buildings in Japan, you have to take off your shoes to go in any building on the temple grounds - even if you're going to see a garden.

Here I am....relaxing again. Do you notice a trend for this trip?

So I can't remember exactly, but I'll do my best to explain. This garden was designed by Mirei Shigemori. It's supposed to look like a waterfall and something else. Here's the you see it?

I think this is supposed to be like the water running down the stream....

And this is down and around a corner, I'm not exactly sure what it's supposed to represent...

But anyway, it seems pretty cool. Hope you enjoyed it as much as me ;) That's about all I did on New Year's Eve Day -- went back to the hostel to get ready for the Eve!!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Next Stop: Heaven....

...or hell.

That was a lame joke that only a few of you probably got. Beppu, a town full of hot springs, was next on my list of places to see. The town has two types of hot springs - ones for looking at, and of course ones for bathing in. The ones that are for looking at are called Jigoku, which translates to hell, but in this case, just hot springs :)

I started my day by viewing a few of the natural hot springs. They all had foot baths, and I couldn't resist dipping my feet even before I went to look at the many hot spring attractions.

After a relaxing foot soak, I was ready to take on the day! Doesn't take much motivation to look at hot springs and then soak in them however! It really was a relaxing time!! Above is one of the naturally red hot springs.

Though Beppu is far from tropical, many tropical plants are able to be grown there because of the steam and warm water! Kinda cool, though I'm not sure that it's true outside the greenhouses they have there...

This hot spring is naturally an aquamarine blue, so pretty when the steam wasn't clouding my view. In this hot spring they boil eggs (you can see the basket) and it's pretty popular to buy and eat the eggs from here. I didn't buy any because you had to buy them in bags of five, and I'm not a huge boiled egg lover anyway. I think there is some superstition that if you eat an egg from there, you add years to your life. Don't quote me on that however, I don't really remember.

The whole city of Beppu steams, even the rain drains on the side of the street! It's an interesting sight to see!!

The last hot spring I went to see was this muddy one. It looks more like gray paint than it does water - even muddy water. It's called "Oniishibozu" named for the big bubbles that look like a monk's bald head. This one was probably my favorite.

The spots like these just kept bubbling and bubbling in the same spots. There must be some certain hot spots that cause the boil. There were several other hot springs I could have seen including a white one, a geyser one, one with alligators running around, etc, but I opted out to try out some onsens instead so more than just my eyes would benefit from all the natural hot water!!
On the first day I went to just one of the regular onsens, one much like the one I go to all the time where I live. They did have a nice waterfall bath where water falls in a big stream and you stand or sit under it, letting it massage your back. Fabulous!! After getting clean, I decided to get dirty and go to the mud bath! Above is the sign which I though was quite hilarious. In reality, the mud bath was not all that hot, though definitely quite natural. Looked like just a big mud lake! I wasn't a huge fan, but it was an interesting experience anyway! The mud was the same color as the paint looking hot spring, though a little more watery as the mud settles on the bottom when it's not boiling like the hot spring. Either way it was great.

On day two in Beppu, I didn't go to see any hot springs, but I did decide to soak in a few more! I took a bus out to Suginoi Palace, an onsen with a great view over the city of Beppu. After that, I went and did a sand bath, where they bury you in sand that is heated from below from the hot springs. You stay in the sand for about 10 minutes before you break free of the weight on top of you and go to wash it all off and soak yourself in a real bath!

I just happened to run into a friend in Beppu -- she was my roommate at Tokyo orientation and we took a trip to Osaka together, so it was nice having a familiar face. Though I still went off on my own and kinda did my own thing, I met up with her and a friend a few times throughout the two days. We also had some amazing Italian dinners together in the evenings! It was good to have a mix of both doing my own thing and hanging with friends.

My last stop on the trip was Kyoto for New Year's! Next post to come a bit more quickly than this one I hope!! I actually tried to put this one up several times, but was having trouble uploading the pictures. Finally got it to work today!!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Nagasaki 12/26 and 12/27

I stayed in Nagasaki for about a day and a half and just took it easy and hit up the most popular spots that I wanted to see. I started out with the museum that was all about the atomic bombing, the events leading up to it, Japan's relations with other countries, and the aftermath as well as current information about nuclear testing. I thought that the Hiroshima museum was much more detailed and interesting and definitely had more exhibits, but maybe I just found Hiroshima more interesting because I was there first and there was a lot of repeat information and exhibits.

So when you first enter is a clock, frozen (or burned?) on the time that the bombing happened -- 11:02 am. The time is a little hard to see with the reflection and shadows, but if you look close, that's what it says. They had a watch similar to this at the Hiroshima museum. It really does make a thoughtful entrance to the museum though.

I wandered through the museum for awhile checking out the exhibits that weren't such a repeat from the Hiroshima museum and then headed to the Peace Park.

This is ground zero, a small space that is preserved behind glass in the park. The rest of the rubble has been built over and looks like nothing happened really, but it was interesting to see this spot.

The park has a monolith, some prison foundation that was left, the remains of the Urakumi Cathedral, and lots of statues given to Nagasaki to promote peace in the world. One was giving (someone ironically) by St. Paul. I didn't know before going, but St. Paul and Nagasaki share Japan's oldest sister city affiliation, a great tidbit to know! Glad I happened upon it. Anyway it's seven humans who represent the seven continents and our interdependency on each other. Thought it was interesting. There were lots of cool statues in the park, but I'm not gonna post them all on here. You can see the rest on flickr if you want!

So you know how I'm always posting pictures of the big torii gates on here? Well this one is just one half because the other half was blown away by the bombing. It's about 900 meters, over a half a mile away from where the bomb was dropped. Insane how powerful that kind of bomb is. I can't really say much because I don't know enough of the history, but looking at the damage firsthand (and of course a little second hand and obviously biased because, well, it's a museum from Japan's point of view), I can't believe how horrific the results are of using an atomic bomb. But I'm also realistic, and I know that we'll probably never be rid of all the ones that are already in the world and that a lot of crazy people will probably find ways to make them (and are already right now). But, I signed a petition anyway to get Obama to come to Nagasaki :) It was at the entrance of the museum and they want him to visit there because he's expressed his interest in lowering the stockpiles of atomic bombs (Russia and America have the most by far). I said, I'm not so much in the know when it comes to history and WWII, but the museums were really interesting and I feel like I know a little more now that I've been to both of them!

Anyway, back to my day. I wanted around the city and park a bit more, and then headed to the Nagasaki port. There are mountains in the background and it was a perfect evening to watch the sunset. I stopped at a small cafe near the water and got some pasta and wine. It was fabulous -- some real pasta, which doesn't happen so often in Japan! It was nice watching the sun go down and the stars come out over a great meal! Excellent!!

I was rejuvenated after the food and made my way down to the river, which had a line of bridges along it, some of them very old. This is one of the more popular ones - a "spectacles" bridge because it looks like a pair of glasses with the reflection in the water. There are quite a few of them in Japan and I'm sure all over the world, but it was a nice walk at night. I actually randomly saw a friend from Shizuoka that I know when I was getting on the tram to come here, so we met up later and went to get and a drink and catch up. It's nice when traveling alone to see a familiar face and have a good chat.

So my time in Nagasaki was complete. I was able to get well rested in a hotel with a big bed!! The beds in my apartment are both singles and I usually stay in hostels which are more like dorm rooms with a bunch of bunk beds, so the real bed was a nice luxury for two nights. I could actually roll over (twice if I wanted!). Next stop: Beppu, the land of hot springs!

See the rest of the pictures from my trip at

A Miyajima Christmas

Well, I didn't see any reindeer for Christmas, but I definitely saw lots of regular deer. And by regular I mean dirty, pretty domesticated deer who stick their noses in your pocket and try to eat your map/anything paper within their grasp. After the Castle on Christmas Eve, I finished riding the train and arrived in Hiroshima after over 12 hours on train that day. So on Christmas Day I took it easy, slept in, and took the ferry to Miyajima, a small island near Hiroshima. I've been there before, but the last time I was there, the torii looked like this:

Well, that big torii gate is supposed to be floating, but it really only looks that way around high tide. So I decided I wanted to go back when it was "floating." See below:

I feel much better having gone back and gotten this more traditional Japanese photo. Might sound silly, but something I can mark of my list before leaving Japan.

My Christmas dinner was quite nontraditional. I was fine with that because of all the holiday parties I went to before leaving on my trip. I ate in a really cute little restaurant and had katsudon, a rice bowl with egg, onion and breaded pork cutlet on top. It's one of my favorite Japanese foods and this was one of the best I've had! With some miso soup and a beer on the side, it was a great Christmas dinner, I'd say!

I did some random souvenir shopping because it started raining, but I love just wandering around shops. I always have, but I feel bad about doing it when I'm traveling with other people. A lot of shops do have the same things especially at touristy places like that, but I still enjoy it! I bought maybe too many things, but was Christmas! A few gifts from "Santa" can't hurt!

After the long train ride the day before, I decided to cheat just a little bit and take the fast train down to Nagasaki. It was my only fast train of the entire trip though and quite necessary so I could get there before midnight! More adventures to come...