Natalie Goes to Japan

40 year old very married blonde woman having a midlife crisis who heads to Japan alone to follow her dreams. Be careful what you wish for ... you just may get it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In Search of Kouyou

Kouyou is the word for the leaves that have turned color in the fall. And the Japanese love to view the Kouyou. I had visited Myojin gorge earlier this year and had thought it might be great to go again now that the leaves have started turning. But the weather forecast wasn't good for Sunday, and worse for Monday. So I gave up on the idea. But when I woke up Sunday and the sky was gorgeous, I decided to chance it and go drive the gorge. I took every map in the apartment but the right one, of course. But my memory served me very well. I drove slowly and meandered through the very quiet valley. I stopped and took pics whenever the mood and oportunity struck. I ate my lunch sitting at a roadside stop and watched the river go by. I got to the end of the valley around noon. That left me alot of time. So I decided to check out the nearby nature reserve, even though the clouds had moved in. I first stopped at the wildlife museum, but the door wouldn't open, even though the lights were on and cars outside. There were very small signs on the door. Maybe they said they were closed for lunch. They may have even said "pull hard", but I didn't think of that until later. I continued through the reserve until I came across a sign said something to the extent of "30 Mushrooms that way". Okay, it didn't say mushrooms. Mark thinks the kanji for minutes looks like a mushroom. So something was 30 minutes up this trail. Like a real hiking trail. So I took it. Boy was it steep. I was taking one of my many breathers when an old dog came into view barking at me. Shortly two older folks came into view. They looked worried that I might be afraid of the dog, so I yelled "daijobu" to them reassuringly and started cooing to the dog. When the dog got closer he started wagging his tail and making friends. The couple asked me if I was alone. I get that alot. Yes I said. We chatted a little and they let me know that the trail got very steep up ahead and insisted I take one of the walking sticks they had picked up along the way. I accepted gratefully and went on my way. And they were right. It was very steep, and the stick came in handy. I never thought I would reach....what was I trying to reach? I eventually reached the highest peak around, and there was a branch bench. I sat and caught my breath. Then I headed down. It was much easier, if more treacherous going down. I dropped the walking stick with the others at the head of the trail and got into my nice warm car. I followed the road and came across other hiking trails, even more nicely marked than the first. And I continued to meander and look at the scenery, while trying to avoid all the fallen rocks in the road. Most were the size of a softball or smaller, but there were a few the size of a good footstool. Eventually I came to the highway to take me home. I left at 9 in the morn, and didn't return home until 5. Quite the day for someone who hadn't expected to do anything more strenuous than do the dishes.

Check out more pics at flickr

Monday, November 27, 2006

Kaze Gimi

My life at the moment seems to be a delicate balancing act of taking care of my cold and not going bonkers. Kaze Gimi is a term in Japanese that can mean a lingering cold. And that's what I got. It's not terrible, but it just won't go away. I've had it for over a week. And I try and take care of myself so it won't get worse. But lying around the house for too long will give me a headache and make me feel bad, too. The picture above is of the cold virus I found on the internet. It's rather pretty, ain't it. But I would like for it to leave me alone.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Retread 3 - Miyakoda

We had a Thanksgiving-ish holiday on Thursday, too. Except without the turkey or family gatherings. So I was determined to get out of the house even though I had a lingering cold. So I decided to go somewhere close. I thought I would go back to Miyakoda. Shortly after my Fruit Picking adventure I went back to Miyakoda to find the "Hiking Course" on my map. However that first time was a real bust. The map said the starting location was the Miyakoda Train station, which I found after a few attempts. And even found a sign showing the course. So off I went. Except that I couldn't find any sort of trail. After asking a half dozen people the way to the hiking course in my pathetic Japanese, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't exactly a trail. You just walk along the paved road. Well, it started to look rainy that first time, so I just gave up. This time I thought I would be less ambitious and just try and walk from the temple mentioned on the map to the look-out point. Except that I missed the temple, and the turn off for the look-out point as well. But further on was a sign pointing to something or other where the international symbol for bathrooms was included. Well, that sounded promising, so I followed that little road. And a fabulous road it was. Very pretty, smoothly paved and not another soul on it. I eventually found the famous look-out point. Which was less than spectacular, but hell, I found it. I decided to walk farther along the lovely road for a bit to get some excercise. It was grey and overcast, but a pretty nice temp for walking. I came across a Shinto Shrine gate which led to a small path. I couldn't pass that up. It turned out to be a very short path and a teeny tiny shrine. But very endearing. I continued up the road and I turned around after half an hour and walked back. Right before I got to my car I realized that there was a sign that pointed down a path I hadn't seen. Unfortunately I had run out of steam. So I don't know if this path was a short as the last one, or a nice bit of a hike. Maybe I'll go someday and visit the temple. I'll keep you posted of course.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Retread 2 - Horaijisan

Well, it was Monday. And I had only done the little trip to Tenryu the day before. And I wanted to try and do something bigger. So I decided to try and go to Horai again. I had planned to go several weeks ago, but got sidetracked with the temple at Okuyama. So I got myself in the car and drove. I took the wrong map. Not that it really mattered, as my map doesn't show how to get to the temple. So I retraced my steps to Okuyama and headed up in the direction I believed Horai to be. I drove and looked at the scenery and drove and drove. Well, I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Shinshiro. Which isn't worth the time it took to get there. I ended up eating lunch in the parking lot of a drug store. I went back the way I came, and tried to correct that left turn at Alburquerque that Buggs is always talking about. I eventually ended up at the town I believed was Horai, but there weren't any signs to the mountain. And I was pretty fed up. But as I neared a gas station I got the brilliant idea to see if they had any maps for sale. Better than that, they gave me a free tourist map of the area and explained where I was and where I needed to go. I knew I didn't have enough time now to hike the mountain, but thought I could go visit the fairly famous temple and shrine there. So I turned around and followed the map. Half an hour later I pulled up to the parking area, and was quite surprised to find I had to pay 500 yen to pay to park. I've never paid parking at a temple before. Oh, well, I was here. It had started to sprinkle, and the clouds were moving in. Well, I somehow got engulfed by a tourbus full of tourists. We first came to the shrine. Their tour guide told them a few sentences about the shrine, and then everybody spread out to either pray, or purify themselves at the well, or buy a fortune. My camera batteries gave up the ghost at this point, so I tried to coax it and trick it, but no such luck. I was trying to wait out the tour group, but there really was nothing to look at at this shrine. It was very small, and terribly uninteresting. So I ended up walking to the temple with some of the stragglers. One chatty woman decided to strike up a conversation with me. As my Japanese is so extremely limited we only able to talk about the fact that I was there alone and that the weather made looking at the fall colors hard, but that the clouds were pretty. Then we came up to the famous shrine. What a disappointment. It's tiny. You can't go inside. And there is nothing interesting outside. It was nearly time for me to turn around anyway, as I needed to get back to see some clients. And I spotted the 2 hour hiking trail to the top of the mountain. The major accomplishment was that I found it and I got a map. I guess I just have to consider this trip as reconnaissance.

Retread 1 - Akino Fuku Museum

I've had a lingering, but mild cold for the last week. But I'm still trying to get out and about. Since it was raining last Sunday I decided to see if I could find the museum in Tenryu that I was unable to find last January. This time, at least, I was armed with an idea of what the building looked like, as I had seen it on the internet. So I drove up to Tenryu and turned on the well marked street. But I still couldn't really spot the place. I decided to just park at the library and explore the area by foot. Since it was Sunday there seemed to be more people walking about. And some of them headed up a strange little hilly road with a crossgate across it, next to a very nondescript sign. So I decided to follow. It soon became apparent that this was the place I had seen on the internet. I paid my 300 yen, changed my shoes for slippers and got a brochure in English and was ready to explore. There were a ton of old people sitting in the first room looking exhausted. My, what had they been doing? I followed some folks down a long hallway and up some stairs to what was obviously a traveling exhibit. It was a strange mish-mash of souveniers and awards from Mr. Honda. The Mr. Honda. But mainly it had to do with race cars. There were newspaper clippings, award certificates, a few model cars and bad photos of Mr. Honda. There were also some general paintings intermixed with it. Not terribly good paintings, not bad, but not museum quality. So I'm assuming they were paintings done by the car man himself. But that's just a guess. Well, that took longer to explain than it did to view it. So I went downstairs to try and find the regular exhibits. Akino Fuku (or Fuku Akino, if you want to say it the Japanese way) was a modern Japanese artist who died in 2001. She spent a great deal of her life living all around Asia, and her paintings reflect the mixed styles of various countries. There were probably only 30 paintings on display, but some were extremely large. And I quite liked it. But even sitting down and looking at a book of all of her art and going through the place a second time, the whole visit probably took about 45 minutes. It took me that long just to drive there. But, the most important thing is that I found the blasted place. And it was a nice way to kill some time on a dreary rainy day.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Places I Go

One of the places I go every week is to the mall to do my grocery shopping. Yes, I said I do my grocery shopping at the mall. The anchor store here is Jusco. I'd say it's a little like Wal-mart, but it's much cleaner and carries nicer stuff. And this one is two stories. It has a large supermarket that takes up half of the bottom floor. The other half is taken up by electronics, household goods and beauty supplies. The second floor is clothing and a large arcade. I also go into the mall to buy some harder to find foodstuffs at Kaldi, a coffee and foreign foods store. The mall and Jusco are very nice, places I don't mind spending time in. Except this week they already have Christmas decorations up and Christmas music playing. Oh, well, whatcha gonna do?

Friday, November 10, 2006

It Must be in the Water

I had plans to go to Hakone this weekend with Yukie and her husband, Shosei. But Yukie hadn't been feeling very well for awhile now. And now we know why. She's preggers. And her morning sickness lasts 24 hours a day. So the trip is obviously off. But my other private student...the one I went to the Street Performer's Festival...she's pregnant, too. She's much farther along. I've warned my other students to be careful, I think there must be something in the water. Luckily, I don't drink water.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Street Performers World Cup

Last Sunday I had plans to go to Shizuoka with a friend to see Daidogei. This is a festival and competition for street performers from around the world. But my "friend" bailed on Thursday night. But I still wanted to go. So I asked my private student, Yukino, about the logistics. She used to live in Shizuoka. Turns out she and her husband were planning on going, and would love for me to join them. Hot Dog! So I took the local train (it was my first time) up to Shizuoka and met them at the station. We went out to lunch first. Normally Italian places are easy for me to get some food without meat. But no such luck here, so I just picked around it. Then we headed out looking for a street performance. The first one we chose to go to was called "Quick Change", from Holland, which was an odd combination of juggling and twirling from one half of the act, while the other half of the duo did "quick changes" of outfits between playing the sax and the xylophone. It was mildly amusing. The next was a Japanese juggler, yo-yo and balancing act. He was pretty good. Then we stumbled on this young kid named Alan Sulc, a 15 year old juggler from the Czech Republic. And he was amazing. Completely mezmorising. He juggled and did various other things while juggling. Not to mention he has to be 6'3" and weigh a total of 120 pounds. He is a true beanpole. And then we saw an American, who did this weird street play, that I'm not sure I could explain. Nor do I want to. It was just really dumb. And he came in 3rd in last years competition. Go figure? Afterwards we went out to dinner and then we drove home. The weather was awesome, it was great spending time with Yukino and it was really fun to meet her husband. Man, last we was a good week! More Pics here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Yahoo Photos Went All Beta On Me

My photo albums have always been on Yahoo!Photos for several reasons. The most important was that it was so simple. Well they went all beta on me. Which means they changed. I guess they wanted to be more like Flickr, with tags and all the little extras. But it also means they've screwed everything up. It took me hours yesterday to upload my Hiroshima pics. So today I tried uploading to the famous Flickr. I'd tried it before, but had some many probs I just went back to Yahoo. But today it was very easy. So you can find the whole Okuyama picture set here. Tell me what you think.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Halloween for the Slightly More Mature

The day I returned from my Hiroshima/Miyajima/Himeji trip I managed to make it to my 3 private gigs. One of which is Eigo Mura at the Junk Saloon. And they have an annual Halloween Party. I suspected that I might have to go straight from the train station, so I packed a little something in my weekender back pack. I threw in a pair of rabbit ears and my face paints. But most people made more of an effort. A couple of medical students came in full surgical regalia. Sean came in a genie's outfit. Patrick made up a really dopey tanuki (raccoon dog) costume. There was also a character from Dragonball-Z, a construction worker, a chinese lady, a hiker, a chinese grocer, etc. There was a little contest, and the honorable mentions went the the Samurai Nun and the Wererabbit (or as I liked to call him Bunnicula). But the top prizes went to the group of three that came dressed up as slightly demonic scarecrows. Their faces were completely painted black and orange, they had straw sticking out all over the place, and they had broomsticks holding their arms out. And the craziest part of this is that they had to come from a town 30 minutes away by train. They were even followed by the police for a short while. Then after the Eigo Mura ended we went to No Name Bar, as they wanted to get as much use out of their hard work as possible. They scared the heebie jeebies out of quite a few drunks walking along the streets. And we got free drinks! Yippeee!

Pleasant Sidetrack

I had the national "Culture Day" holiday off from work. Yipee. Most holidays fall on Mondays, and I always have Mondays off. So they don't tend to mean much to me, accept that the garbagemen won't being picking up plastics that day, and I'll have to hold on to them for another week. But I had an actual holiday! I had heard that there was some good hiking up at Horai and thought I would give it a try. I'd never been there before. Or anywhere close to it. And my map was a little sketchy. But what the heck. One of the landmarks I was using was Hokoji Temple in Okuyama. And I found it! And I gotten so focused on finding it that I ended up in the parking lot instead of driving past it on the way to Horai. So I had a little visit. Turns out it is a buddhist monastery with quite the complex. I bought my usual incense and thought some good thoughts. I hiked up the hill to a lonely little shrine and ate my traditional egg sandwich. I took pictures, of course. And then I got to the main building. There were obviously some tour guides giving personal tours to the sightseers. One approached me and asked if I understood Japanese. I told him I understood a smidgen. Well, apparently that was good enough and he decided to show it too me. It was all terribly hilarious. I understood bits and pieces. Especially anything having to do with numbers - 300 years this, 3 gods that, 600 people the other thing. But mainly I just nodded and said "So des ne" (sorta equivalant to Is that so?) Every occasionally, when I understood not a word I would shake my head and say Wakarimasen (I don't understand). I did understand that somebody instrumental went to China along time ago to study buddhism. I also know that in some point in history that there was a typhoon and a ship was lost and many people died. But my tourguide found another tour guide who knew a smidgen of English and insisted they switch. Which was really embarrassing, because the other guy was in the middle of the tour with another batch of people. And this guys English was very limited. So I acted much the same way as before. But it was very amusing, and actually gave me a chance to communicate in Japanese. I don't really get very many chances. The tour must have taken 45 minutes and included several buildings, a zen garden and the seas of small statues all over the grounds. And the culmination was seeing the building that holds some of Buddha's teeth. After being freed from the tour I continued to wander the grounds, and got quite a bit of excersize walking all through the steep compound. It was too late to head to Horai. So I headed back to town very contented.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Witchy-Poo Returns

So this week was Halloween, and therefore the infamous Halloween Parties. The great thing about being in my second year here is that so much is easier this time around. And that includes the Halloween Parties. They were still a bit of hard work in my youngest classes, but breezes for my older kids classes. I've even learned to have them help me, which they enjoy. And I really didn't have much trouble getting them to dress up this year, or get their faces painted. I decided also to dress as a witch everyday for classes, and that also eased my tension. I have so many black clothes that I just added a hat and Poof I was a witch. I usually painted a star or moon on my face in front of the children, so that they knew what was going to happen next. The one thing that I did do to make myself more dressed up was that I streaked my hair. I just used the face paints to do it with, and it really worked out well. And I think the mothers did a pretty good job this year with the costumes they put together for their kids. Only one or two had them in really elaborate costumes - which is just fine by me. The children need to be comfortable. But one little boy took the cake. Yuusho came as Batman. And I think his mom sewed his costume, but I think he chose it. Yuusho is a fairly serious little boy, but when he smiles it just lights up my heart. And he wore his mask for the whole class. I saw his mom offering to move it up for him, but he would have no part of that. His secret identity would be exposed then! The only problem with his costume was that one ear refused to stand up, so the other one looks a bit like an radio antennae or something. But I have to say I'm thankful that Halloweeen is over.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Himeji Allure

I was hoping to be back in Hamamatsu early enough that I could still go to my three private gigs on Monday. So that didn't really leave me alot of time in Hiroshima. And I just couldn't make a decision on what to see. Nothing was just calling out to me. So I decided I would stop in another city on my way home and see their little attraction called Himeji Castle (total understatement). It is also in that list of most photographed things in Japan. Himeji is also a Unesco World Heritage site, like the A-Bomb Dome and Itsukushima Shrine. So that made 3 Unesco Sites in 3 days. Not bad, as I had only done one Japanese site before, Kyoto. Turns out that I've been to a few before: Venice, Brugge, Verona, Luxembourg, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Grand Canyon, Smoky Mountains, and Carlsbad Caverns. But I digress. I stopped off to see what all the fuss was about over Himeji-jo. I had been to 3 tiny castles in my area. All of which are cement reconstructs. And I couldn't see what the allure was of living in a castle here. I would rather had been a peasant, than live in one of those buildings. But Himeji was sooooo different. It is one of the twelve remaining original castles. Not to mention it really dwarfs the others I have been to. The insides were much more pleasant, and seemed quite livable. And Himeji also still has most of the battlements, baileys and out-buildings. The West Bailey contained the women's quarters. And the rooms were cozy with lovely views of the gardens. It was all so lovely and impressive and grand. And the weather was as gorgeous as it had been on the previous two days. If you come to Japan, I recommend you come in Autumn. I bought some souveniers, since I hadn't bought any in Miyajima. And I hopped the Shinkansen home. I always seem to pick the best Shinkansen on the way to somewhere, and a much lousier choice on my way back. This one made lots of stops, and took the longer route back. But still, I enjoyed the ride and have no complaints. I came back with much renewed vigor, and a lightened heart. I love travel.

Me in Miyajima

The second day of my trip was spent on the lovely nearby island of Miyajima. It has one of the most photographed sites in all of Japan...and that's saying something. This is the floating gate off the shrine of Itsukushima. Getting there was really quite simple, and cheap. You just take correct colored bus/tram and go to the end of the line (about an hour). The tram I was on was packed with a tour group of English people, who were quite entertaining. When you get off the tram you tell the ticket taker where you got on, and they charge you accordingly. Very trusting. Then I walked over to the ferry. I chose the less good ferry, apparently. The JR ferry made a longer trip, but got close to the gate for picture taking. As you leave the docks you are met by the island deer, who start making demands for you to feed them. I quickly made my escape and wandered around. Eventually I made my way up to the skytram and decided that sounded good. It's quite steep, and not for the faint of heart, and actually you have to transfer to a different tram before you reach the top. But once there you are at the top of the island with views of Hiroshima and all the other small islands dotting the sea. There is also a monkey reserve at the top, but I guess the monkeys had previous engagements and were nowhere to be found. Well, it didn't take long to see my fill, and I headed down again. You can hike, which would be lovely, but I knew my feet weren't up to it. After my tram ride I stopped at a nearby outdoor restaurant that served udon. It was lovely sitting on a pillow on a low platform and eating my lunch outdoors. Then I went in search of a nearby temple I had read about. Well, Daisho-in was very nice. Very beautiful buildings tucked into the foot of a mountainside. Little statuary everywhere. I stopped and lit incense and a candle and made my prayers. One of the boxes with fortunes in it, had writing in English on the side, which is unusual. So I bought my fortune. But it was all in Japanese. My Japanese is just good enough that I was able to ask a Japanese sightseer if the fortune was good, bad or so-so. She found the naka symbol which means middle, therefor so-so. I tied the fortune to a rack of other fortunes, as is the tradition, but I'm never sure why. I decided it was finally time to go see Itsukushima shrine, hoping that most of the major tour groups would have moved on by then. I was surprised they had an entrance fee (only $3), but paid. The shrine is built on pilings at the edge of the bay, and luckily it was high tide, so the shrine was surrounded by shallow water. I got my picture taken in front of the gate...which is mandatory, or they sacrifice you to the god of photography. The shrine is a lovely building, but as a site it is very minimalist. You just walk along, and look at the bay, and then it's over. Kind of like a very beautiful, covered boardwalk. Well, I decided it was souvenier shopping and snack time, and walked over to a vending machine and bought an ice cream. As I was sitting on my bench, looking at the peaceful bay on a beautiful autumn day, a crunching sound erupted right beside me. A deer was in the process of snatching my newly bought postcard. I grabbed one end of it, and had a tug of war with the fearsome beast. Alas she won. But the post card slipped out of the paper bag it was in as she made her get away. My newly retrieved postcard now has deer teethmarks on it. The postcard is a lovely watercolor of the gate, and the mountain and bay, with peaceful looking deer lying in front. Hah. Now that's irony. I planned on doing more souvenier shopping, but I couldn't find a garbage can in which to put my dripping ice cream wrapper. By the time I found one, I was back at the ferry landing and not about to turn around and go back. I had seen on the map that I could take the "World Heritage Cruise" back to Peace Park, and that sounded nice and interesting. So I paid my 20 bucks and got on board. It was a nice trip, but it was no "World Heritage Cruise". It was more like a water taxi. It got us from point a to point b a few minutes faster than the bus. But there was no narration, or points of interested pointed out to us. But the sun was setting through some puffy clouds and made for nice photographs. That night for dinner I went to a tapas bar in the shopping arcade and had several tapas and some sangria. Then I went back to the bar I went before (Kemby's) and had another drink and watched MTV and had a nice chat with a young Japanese nurse. Wandered back to my hotel on another gorgeous night and hit the sack to get ready for another day of sightseeing.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Tears in Hiroshima

I had a 3 day weekend last week and went on a mini-sightseeing tour. I rode the Shinkansen to Hiroshima in 3 hours. I love the Shinkansen. This is what travel should always be like. Big seats, interesting views, and quick boarding. So easy...if a bit expensive. I got to Hiroshima by 11:30, found the travel information booth, and they directed me quickly to my bus and which stop to take. I stayed at the Youth Hostel located in the Astor Plaza. And it is soooo not a hostel. Nice private rooms, with pretty good amenities. And barely more expensive than the other hostel, which is not nearly so convenient. Got settled in expeditiously and was out looking at the memorials in no time. The youth hostel is only 3 blocks South of the Peace Park, so I went there directly, and ate at the Italian restaurant under the Atomic Bomb Museum, right out of the 1970's. Then I was ready to deal with the topic at hand. The atomic bomb memorials. I visited the sculpture of Sadoko, the young girl who developed leukemia and died before she could finish folding 1000 cranes. And the plexiglass rooms adjacent, filled to the gills with paper cranes from children from all over the world. I rang the peace bell. I stopped and stared wistfully at the Flame of Peace. I watched as people laid flowers in front of the cenotaph. I looked for the Pheonix trees, which still have scorch marks, but am not sure if I found them or not. But the place that brought me to tears was the Memorial Mound, with the ashes of tens of thousands of people who were cremated there after the atrocity. And the ashes of any survivors who later died due to after effects. After a short sitdown, watching the river go by I was ready for the Museum. The museum is absurdly cheap, only 50 yen (less than 50 cents). The rental of the audio guided tour system was only 300 yen, and definately worth it. The museum is quite big. I was quite surprised to see the museum language was fairly unbiased, and did not evade Japan's part in the war, or previous wars. They have a wall that was stained with black rain, they have a permanent shadow on stone stairs, and other such artifacts. Very good museum. But of course, the intriguing memorial is what is now called the A-Bomb Dome. A brick building near ground zero, that was left in ruins, but not demolished. It's beautiful, in a way that ruins frequently are. The next morning when I walked by, a giant blue heron was perched on top, and sparrows were flitting around it every where. After all that emotion I went back to the hostel for a break, and read a nice book, and had a nice chat. But then hunger struck, and I walked up to the center of the city. I went to one of the gaigin restaurants, where Halloween was in full swing. After some food, spirits and being entertained by spooks I wandered back, along the pretty river, on a beautiful fall night. Aaaah, this is what it's all about.