Only in Japan 3

Well, this weekend, starting on Sunday, I and six of my co-workers will be participating in an English camp for a couple dozen of the area’s junior high school students. That means this week’s post will be short – another segment of the “Only in Japan” series. But boy, have I got a post for you!

This weekend’s topic is about everybody’s favorite subject…bugs!

If you’re a Japanese child, that is.

Apparently, collecting bugs is a thing here. In the summer, my first and second graders occasionally come in with plastic cases containing various living creatures that they’ve collected. Last year, it was crickets, which made for a somewhat disruptive class when some of them started chirping. This year, one of my students had a lizard.

And the beetles. Always the beetles.

I suppose in other parts of the United States, they probably have giant bugs, but in the cold-winter climate where I come from, our bugs and living creatures stay a reasonable size. Here, though, some of the spiders and beetles are much bigger than what I’m used to, and some of these large creatures are what the students like to tote around in their carrying cases.

Take a few weeks ago, for instance. Before classes had started, I heard some shrieking coming from one of my classrooms. I went in to investigate, and saw that several of my second-grade boys had taken their beetles out of their carrying cases. One of the boys, who was either afraid of the beetles or was pretending to be, was a few feet away, ducking behind a desk and making loud noises. I started a conversation with the boys, reminding them to use quiet voices, and trying to show interest in their bug escapade. One of my boys said something to me, and I looked down to see that he had placed one of the beetles on my sleeve! Luckily, I’m not terrified of bugs, but it did startle me to have one perched on my arm!

I thought those beetles (probably stag or rhinoceros beetles) were big – until I saw the ones my students brought in the week after. I think they were the same kind, but they were like the granddaddy version! Fortunately, I thought to grab my phone so I could take a few pictures!

Here’s a pair of beetles peering out the sides of their plastic bug case:

Below, one of my second grade girls holding a bug. I trimmed the photo to protect her privacy, but you can still see her slightly-weirded-out smile!

And, in case you want to learn about raising your own pet beetle, here’s a link for your reading pleasure: “How to Care for Your Beetle”. (Note to those with weak stomachs; there are a couple pictures of “baby beetles,” which are, yes, grubs.)

Well, that’s all for this week’s “Only in Japan.” If today’s topic grossed you out and you want to read about something different – or if you liked it and want more posts about strange and disgusting topics – leave me a comment with your thoughts and suggestions below! 🙂

Caves, Stars, and Pizza – Part 2

Summer is here in Japan, which means humid weather, street festivals, summer vacation, and – homework. Wait, what?

Friday was the last day of school for my elementary and kindergarten students. (Unfortunately, the after-school English program at which I work continues for a couple more weeks!) The students were, as to be expected, a little wound up at the prospect of having time off and doing special things with their families. However, I noticed several of them equipped with cases which apparently contain their summer homework. One sixth grader told me that he was “happy and sad.” Happy, because summer break was here, but sad because he had so much homework! Apparently, the strong work ethic starts early here…

Anyway, on to the continuation of my previous post. Last week, I wrote about our cave adventure, but I didn’t get to the last part of the day. Of course, the caves was the most exciting part, but we also got to see some stars and planets and have dinner at a surprisingly unique pizza place.

First, the stars. I’ve always had a fascination with the night sky; I took basic astronomy at my university and got to visit their observatory and planetarium. This was pretty much the same experience, minus the planetarium. We spent an hour and a half or so on the roof of the observatory, looking through various telescopes and listening to a guide as he pointed out different stars with his super-strong laser pointer. It was interesting, but nothing I hadn’t done before. However, I can say that I’ve never heard the planets’ names in Japanese before!

This was the biggest telescope:

We were able to see about four different planets; if I remember right, they were Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. Some of them were bright enough to see with the naked eye. I learned that Venus is called the “gold” planet in Japanese. Jupiter is the wood planet, Mars is the fire planet, and Saturn is the dirt planet, according to my trusty electronic dictionary. Not sure why they’re named after these things, though!

The observatory from afar:

Sandwiched in between the cave exploration and the star viewing was dinner. I’d been excited when our guides had told us that we were going to eat at a pizza place, but when we drove up to it, I was rather confused.

This is it?

It turns out, it was. Apparently it’s a former barn that has been converted into a pizza shop. It was small inside, with our group of thirteen maxing out the capacity. A wood fire, with which the pizzas were baked, was burning brightly, which made for a great ambiance but a rather toasty room.

We ordered a variety of different pizzas, most of which I’d never had before. First up was a margarita-style, but after that we delved into more unknown territory. Burdock? Check. Shiitake mushroom? Check. Nattou and kimchi? Why, of course.

We were also served some side dishes as appetizers – potato salad (which has a more mashed consistency here) and fried/glazed soybeans. About halfway through the meal, out came a delightful-looking bowl of jelly. Knowing that jelly is a popular dessert item here, I was pleased that we were being served something so cool and refreshing on such a hot day – until I heard the warning, “It’s not sweet!”

My friends, who agreed to be the subjects of my video, let me record their jelly-tasting adventure:

Trying the nattou and kimchi pizza was also an adventure for us Americans, who have a “difficult” time with nattou (that’s fermented beans). I’ve decided, after several tries, that I really don’t like it that well; it has a rather nasty smell, and a bit of a slimy texture. However, on the pizza, masked by the strong kimchi flavor, it was edible.

We finished off our meal with a couple of dessert pizzas. Some of the group ordered a honey pizza, while our table ordered sweet potato and anko (sweetened red bean paste). Even though it seemed like an unlikely combination, it turned out to be my favorite!

Between the caves, the stars, and the pizza adventure, it turned out to be an experience-filled day, and we were all tired when we got driven back to our apartments at about 9:30. I’m so grateful that I had the chance to visit these places, and explore more of the attractions in our area, especially since the caves was something I had been looking forward to for quite awhile! I can now cross that off my bucket list, and start planning for my next adventure – visiting my family in the wilds of Maine! See you soon, fam!

Caves, Stars, and Pizza – Part 1

Opening to the Abukuma Caves. Not the opening we use, the one the bats use. 🙂

Well, I finally got to visit a place I’ve been wanting to go for awhile – Abukuma-do, the limestone caves in Tamura! I did have a short, unexpected trip there a couple of weeks ago when my employer asked me to help accompany one of their guests there. However, I knew we had this trip already planned, so I was really looking forward to being able to spend a longer amount of time at the caves, and to be able to take more extensive photo and video footage.

Some of the employees who work for the city were kind enough to arrange this trip, in an effort to promote foreign tourism to the area. They even arranged transportation for nine of us American teachers! The plan was to visit the caves, eat dinner, and then view the night sky from the observatory, which is located near the caves. On Saturday afternoon, a van came to pick us up, and away we went, excited to be visiting an attraction that’s practically in our backyard (technically, it’s located in the town of Takine about half an hour’s car ride away, but it’s still in the same city of Tamura, which is a conglomeration of smaller towns).

The caves were at the top of a hill. It was a beautiful, hot summer day, great for taking pictures of the views!

The purple flowers in the photo above are lavender. There’s a lavender farm on the side of the hill! Although the flowers were past their prime, you can see the bushes in the photo below. The walkway on the hillside is the pathway to the caves. It loops up and goes down the back of the hill, leading into the cave’s interior.

The little guy in the photo below is Orion-chan (yes, that’s the constellation Orion), who is apparently the mascot for the town of Takine. They’re big on mascots here!

It was a 90-degree day with lots of humidity, so we were thrilled when we walked into the caves and experienced the refreshing coolness! Here’s part of the path:

The tickets purchased for our group included entrance on one of the more adventurous portions of the path. Although it wasn’t nearly as adventurous as the courses offered in the neighboring caves, one of which needs a guide, it did require some ducking, crouching, and ladder climbing. The video below starts out with me exclaiming about a small stream that I could see trickling off somewhere deep into the cave’s interior, and ends with me realizing that the path we were on was actually a mini obstacle course.

The main cavern was huge, and the limestone formations were amazing! There is special lighting around that illuminates the features and makes them appear blue and green in the photos.

Here’s a short video clip of the main cavern:

And more formations:

This formation had a strangle speckled surface:

The formation below is called the “Christmas Tree.”

One of the final exhibits along the pathway was a place where special lighting was installed, replicating a sunrise and sunset. Our Japanese guide, an enthusiastic and indomitable elderly woman, explained the various attractions, while one of the city’s employees kindly translated for us.

We spent about an hour or so in the caves, and came out feeling refreshed from the coolness and ready for part two of our adventure – dinner and a trip to the observatory. But since this post is already long enough, that’s a story for next week!

Reminiscing and Reflecting

Hello, everyone! Due to busyness and feeling overwhelmed with work and study, it’s been two weeks since my last blog post. So much for getting back on a regular posting schedule!

The last couple of weeks have seemed like a blur. Two weeks ago, one of my co-workers and I found out that we were going to be helping our employers with a guest they had arriving from America. Hospitality is a huge deal here, and because the visitor was someone associated with our employer’s exchange program in America, they wanted to give her the grand tour. My co-worker and I had known about the visit ahead of time, but what we did not know is that it would involve overnight trips to different destinations in the prefecture! The trip I was asked to participate in was on Thursday, and ironically, we went to Hawaiians again – the same place I had visited only a few days before! I was actually really excited to go again, since I had been disappointed about not getting to do everything I’d wanted to the first time. On Thursday night, we also stayed overnight in a hotel with beautiful scenery – Mount Bandai in the back and Lake Inawashiro in the front. Here are a couple of photos!

Lake Inawashiro, in the distance
Mount Bandai

The next day, I thought I was returning to work by mid-afternoon, but our guests requested to visit the limestone caves near our town, so I was asked to accompany them there as well. I was excited to get to go, since it’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit for awhile. I’ll post more details about the caves in a future post, since another (hopefully longer) trip there is in the works in the near future.

Last Sunday I had my JLPT test, into which I went feeling a bit unprepared, since I haven’t had much study time lately. I felt reasonably confident in vocabulary and writing, but feel like I bombed the listening part, since I mostly guessed on all the questions. My listening skills just aren’t good enough to be able to pick out an answer after listening to a recording only once. Something to work on, I guess!

This past week we received an unexpected visit from our coordinator in America, who had rather suddenly been asked to come meet with our employers. Face-to-face meetings seem to be important here, at least among the people we work with, so he was requested to come in person instead of discussing things over the phone. It worked out well, since the team hadn’t had the opportunity to check in with him for awhile, and it’s always great to see another friendly face from America!

This week, it’s hopefully back to a somewhat normal work and study schedule. Despite the busyness, many of the goings-on have been positive, and there’s much that I’m thankful for. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my time here, and how I’ve changed, and what the future might hold. Last night we had our annual “7th of July” party (since we couldn’t hold it on the 4th of July, which is understandably not a holiday over here!). It got me contemplating about how long and yet short this year has been, and how God has changed me over the course of it. It’s been a year and three months since I’ve moved to Japan, and it seems like so much has happened in my heart and mind. When I look back, it seems like I was so naive, thinking that somehow I would be a different person when I moved to Japan. I knew that I couldn’t expect what to expect, yet somehow I still didn’t expect the unexpected. 🙂 I discovered that I still am myself, even though it doesn’t feel like it when going through a huge transition. I discovered that I can be incredibly weak and fragile, even to the point of regressing into patterns of fear and worry that I had once overcome and thought I would never slip into again. I discovered that I am able to settle back into a routine and a feeling of normality, and that though my external circumstances may change, I’m still just myself, with the same habits, weaknesses, and hang-ups. And I’ve learned (well, re-learned, really) that God is with me, and that He is able to walk with me through discouragement and confusion and get me through to the other side again.

The next nine months (the rest of my contract) seem both long and short. I’m missing my family more intensely this second year than I did my first, and the differences in the culture and tediousness of work sometimes settle in. I’m praying about the next step in my life, as I’ll have to make a decision about whether or not to stay here another year by early fall. When I first arrived, in my joy and eagerness to be here, I thought, “I’m going to be here forever!” I felt like I had properly (mentally) boxed up my old life and could move on with a new chapter, in which ideally I would be pretty much perfectly happy (even though I was trying not to expect that).

What I’ve learned is that life isn’t so easily delineated into neat categories. Yes, I love Japan, but I also love my family and life in America – quite a bit, I am realizing. Before, I felt like I had to be all one thing or all the other. If I was going to love Japan, I had to love everything about Japan. Now I’m seeing that that’s not necessarily true. There are some things that, quite frankly, I’m just plain tired of. And yet I do love Japan. My heart is somehow intertwined with it, and I feel like I want to be involved with it again in the future, that I’ll never quite let it go. But who knows? Because I am also learning that things do change. The things I want to do today, the way I feel today, I may not necessarily feel tomorrow. My main job is to open up my heart and let God lead me where He wants me to go, because He sees things I cannot, and He will lead me to the places where I can be of most service to Him and where He can best do His work in me.

So, if you think of it, please pray for me. Pray that I will have wisdom to make a good decision, with the right priorities, not being swayed by selfish desires, but not ignoring my desires, either. Pray that God will prepare my heart for whatever decision He’d have me make. Because honestly, either decision is going to be hard. Right now I feel a steady tug toward home – enough to make me feel fairly confident that returning to America is the decision I’ll make. And yet leaving a country where a large portion of my heart is, and where I thought I would stay for quite some time, will be difficult as well. I love this program, and the people I’ve met have become like family. It’s always hard to say goodbye, and no matter which path I choose, I will have to say goodbye to something. But I am confident that God will continue leading me in the paths He wants me to be in, and that He’ll give me the joy and energy for the tasks He asks me to do. And so I move onward into the future…

 

Summer Adventures

Hello everyone! Long time no post! This month has been busy with meetings, birthday celebrations, and of course just normal work! Since I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks, this will be sort of an update post, and I’ll try to get back in the routine of regular posting again!

Although work  has seemed especially busy lately – and I have some especially tough classes this year – we’ve been able to have a lot of fun this month. The team this year is all about hanging out and having fun together, which is great! It really means a lot, since we don’t have family around, to have a type of “home away from home” with the team here.

One of the fun activities we were able to enjoy together this past weekend was going to the Hawaiians resort in Iwaki, which our employers generously treated us to again this year.  If you didn’t read my post from last year, Hawaiians is a resort built to simulate a Hawaiian experience, with a water park, hula shows, shops, and food stands.

Last year at the Hawaiians, I had my very first onsen experience! Yes, that’s bathing naked with strangers in the hot springs,  so it was a landmark “first” for me. This year, I didn’t even end up doing onsen, although I had been planning on it. Instead, I decided to ride the very tall water slide called “Big Aloha,” which had been under construction last year. I waffled a little about my decision, especially since there was a 50-minute wait, but when my friends went, I decided to go too.

I ended up regretting the decision, not only because it cost more money but also because it took an hour away from my afternoon. Perhaps if I had been thinking more clearly, I would have remembered how I felt riding the smaller (but still scary) “Black Wonder” slide in the morning. It’s strange, because last year I rode “Black Wonder” several times, and even though it winds through dark tunnels and made my stomach drop a couple of times, I liked it enough to keep doing it. This time, though, it kind of freaked me out for some reason. So why I decided to ride the really big one, I’m not quite sure.

After waiting for many minutes, and trying not to glare at the quick-pass riders who kept getting waved ahead of us, it was finally my turn to get on the slide. It started out slowly, but after that it was a bit of a traumatizing experience. It kept dropping me, and splashing me, and dropping me again. I was trying to remind myself to breathe, but it’s hard to breathe when you keep getting dropped. Now keep in mind, this is a girl who has never ridden a roller coaster or any “scary” amusement rides, and my sole water slide experiences have been here at Hawaiians. So I had no idea how my body would react. “Am I going to throw up?” I kept thinking as my terrified little self whooshed down the tunnel. Then, in my terror, “Well, if I throw up, I throw up.”

Then, finally, I could see the end in sight, but it came all too quickly for me to prepare, and I plunged into the pool gasping, ingesting the pool water and ungracefully floundering and trying to get my legs under me. The attendant guided my arm toward the exit ladder, and I got out, shaking. “Never again,” I decided. I then had to work at swallowing my disappointment about wasting my afternoon and my hard-earned money on an experience that I hadn’t really enjoyed. But anyway, now I know. No roller coasters or heart-stopping rides for me. Of course, in the future I may forget my terror and get brave again. But for now, once is enough.

Besides visiting Hawaiians, we’ve also had other adventures this month, one of which was attempting to find a Pizza Hut in honor of my teammate’s birthday. We did some research and found out that supposedly there were two different take-out places in Koriyama, the largest city near us. After much searching on Google Maps, walking and riding of buses, and re-calculating after discovering that one of the shops was permanently closed, we finally located the one Pizza Hut in the city! We happily made away with the pile of pizzas we had ordered, excited to have “American-style” pizza again.

Here’s the tiny pizza place, functioning mostly as a take-out place with only a few tables inside. Notice the little delivery scooters out front!

Now that the Hawaiians trip is over and our multiple June birthday celebrations have come and gone, it’s time to put the nose to the grindstone again with work, studying Japanese, and preparing for the extracurricular activities that we help with in the summer. I’m also planning on taking the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), which is administered next weekend, so that’s definitely motivation to study. Ganbarimasu, as they say here – I’ll put my all into it!

Have a good week everyone, and talk to you soon!

Another Sports Day

Wow, it’s kind of weird to think that I’ve been in Japan long enough to start experiencing things for the second time around – my second spring, my second cherry blossom season, and now my second summer. One of my recent “seconds” was the local elementary school’s annual Sports Day. I wrote a general post about it last year and included several videos, so this year I will just focus on a couple of the highlights.

In many ways, this year’s Sports Day felt almost identical to last year’s, right down to the clear blue sky and sunny weather. The program was almost exactly the same as last year’s, too, with many races and relays interspersed with dancing, the school marching band, and team spirit events. For me, the Japanese penchant for efficiency is never more apparent than at one of these gatherings, and I feel a little bit of awe at how smoothly everything runs. For the most part, everyone seems to know what they are doing and when, and even the children take part in helping to run the event.

One of the most interesting exhibitions for us Americans was the yelling contest, in which the cheerleaders (all boys) led their opposing red and white teams in whipping up a frenzy of enthusiasm. This year, the contest (not sure if it’s an actual contest, but that’s what it seems like!) took place closer to our seats than it had last year, so I was able to get some up-front footage. I’ll share several videos of this unique event below!

There was also a race in which students had to choose between a red, yellow, and blue cone. Then a color got picked at random, and the students who had chosen the selected color got to run straight to the goal, while the others had to run around another marker first. The name of this game was “What color do you like?” (in English!), and while the students ran to the colored cones there was a sound track of one of the chants we use in our English classes. I shall never hear it the same way again…

We all really enjoyed watching the events and cheering on the students, many of whom we teach at the elementary school or have in our own classes at the after-school program. It was great to see our students in an environment outside the classroom, and we felt joy when “our” students won a race! I was happy to have the chance to experience Sports Day for the second time around, and though I may not be here next year, I have lots of memories and photos stored up!

Only in Japan 2

Hello everyone!

It’s been a busy week! Last weekend was full, with the local elementary school’s annual Sports Day during the day on Sunday, and a get-together with my teammate’s adult English class in the evening. Three of my coworkers and I attended the Sports Day to cheer on the students, many of whom come to our after-school program. More on that in a later post! For today’s post, I present you with…

…only in Japan, part 2!

As I explained a couple of weeks ago, I’ll be sharing little tidbits of Japanese culture here and there between my lengthier posts. Today’s “Only in  Japan” snapshot is a photo that I took quite awhile ago at my local grocery store, and have not yet had the opportunity to share it.

Until now!

Octopus samples, anyone?

At least that’s what I think it is! When I looked at the picture again before posting it, I started second-guessing myself, not being enough of an octopus expert to readily identify it unless I can see its rather alarming-looking suction cups. If any of my readers are more knowledgeable than I, feel free to correct me!

And no… I didn’t try one! Although I have eaten octopus in the occasional takoyaki ball (see my past Thanksgiving post if you want to see what takoyaki is and how it’s made!), I can’t say that I’m a huge fan. As far as I can tell from my limited tasting experiences with it, it’s basically just a chewy, rubber-like thing to – well, chew.

There are more appetizing food samples here, though. There will often be a sample case of bite-sized pieces of fruit in the produce section, and just today, I tried a cheesecake sample from the dairy section. On the weekends, there are often store employees manning sample booths, cooking up samples just as they do in America. Last week I was accosted by an employee who was very passionate about distributing her samples of milk, so I took the milk she thrust at me, chugged it down, and tried not to get in her line of fire again. Although I do like milk, I find the taste to be a bit different here in Japan, so I usually disguise it with hot cocoa mix or something of the sort. Which of course I couldn’t do in the middle of the grocery store.

Well, it’s evening here and time to say goodbye to another Saturday. The weekends have been full lately, but hopefully sometime in the near future I’ll have time to post about Sports Day #2 (number two for me that is, since it’s my second year here!). Stay tuned for more upcoming posts about cultural experiences and travels, and of course the exclusive photos and videos you get in the “Only in Japan” series! Thanks for reading!

 

Onsen, Ramen, and Mountaintop Views

View of the river in Iizaka Onsen, with one of the town’s bath houses on the left hand side.

Hello everyone! Happy Children’s Day! This weekend marks the last segment of Golden Week, with two days off on Thursday and Friday, and now the weekend. Today, Saturday, is the last official Golden Week holiday, and is known as Children’s Day (formerly Boys’ Day).

In celebration of our long weekend, several of my teammates and I decided to take a journey to Iizaka Onsen, an onsen town near the capital of our prefecture, Fukushima City. What is an onsen town, you ask? Well, it’s a place that contains natural hot springs, and often there are a variety of ryokans (Japanese inns) and bath houses sprinkled throughout the town. Bathing in natural hot springs is a BIG deal here, so these towns are popular tourist attractions.

Yesterday (Friday) we took an early train to Koriyama, then caught the next train to Fukushima City. From there, we took a short train ride to Iizaka Onsen. Our first priority was to look for a bath house, since a couple of my teammates were really excited about trying the onsen. Because we wanted a fairly nice place (not like the sketchy bath house I visited last year!), we spent some time wandering town, researching the informational pamphlets, and asking the friendly employees at the tourism office for help. Finally, we found a ryokan that allowed day bathers AND had an outdoor bath, which we had been particularly hoping for.

After paying the fee to use the bath (a normal rate of 500 yen per person) and being informed of the baths’ locations and rules of use, we discovered to our disappointment that the outdoor bath was on a rotating schedule between men and women, and women would not be allowed to use it for another hour and a half. Nevertheless, we decided to take full advantage of the indoor bath, and enjoyed soaking even though the water was quite hot.

After bath time was lunch time! Iizaka onsen is known for its ramen, and also for its gyoza (Chinese style dumplings). We went to a restaurant that served both, and we ordered a plate of gyoza to share and then each ordered a different kind of ramen. Before I came to Japan, I never knew much about ramen, except that you could buy it in instant form at the store for very cheap. Since then, I’ve learned that there are four main kinds of ramen flavors: soy sauce, salt, miso, and pork bone. Now that I’ve realized how popular ramen is here, I’ve made it my goal to try different types so I can become at least a little more knowledgeable about it!

For lunch in Iizaka Onsen, I chose sesame seed flavored ramen, which came topped with some fried ground meat and a little baby boiled egg.

Our plate of crispy fried gyoza! Yum!

After lunch, we went to visit a historic house that is open for visitors as a type of museum. It was quite a large house filled with tatami rooms, and also had some storage houses and a type of barn.

The gateway of Kyu Horikiri-tei, the historic house.
One of the walls in the historic house. This one was featuring some art work.
A display of kokeshi dolls, a traditional limbless doll which originated in this region.
An interesting chest of drawers built into the side of a staircase in one of the storage buildings on the premises.

Before leaving Iizaka Onsen, we decided to squeeze in one more activity. On our walking map of the town, it showed an overlook on a hill near the town, so we trekked out across the river and down some streets until we found it. The stairs going up to the top of the hill were STEEP!

We were quite tired by the time we got to the top of the stairs, but the views were amazing!

After taking plenty of pictures, we made our way back down the steps, counting to see how many there were. It turns out there were more than a hundred!

Finally, we hopped on the train back to Fukushima City. There, we bought some omiyage (souvenirs) to give to our coworkers, as is the custom here. Because giving souvenirs is so prevalent here, the train stations everywhere are filled with prettily packaged cookies and other edible goodies featuring foods from the local area.

We ended the day by picking up some snacks in Koriyama while we waited for our last train. Oddly, the zunda (edamame) specialty unique to Sendai (the city I visited last weekend) was available at the train station here, so I tried some! It was in the form of zunda mochi, which is basically mochi (rice balls) covered with zunda, a slightly sweetened crushed edamame paste. It was…interesting. It looked like baby food and tasted sort of like I imagine crushed and slightly sweetened peas would taste. It was all right, but I’ll stick with a chocolate dessert any day!!

Well, it’s almost time to say goodbye to Golden Week. It’s always rather sad to end a stretch of days off, but I suppose it will be good to get in the swing of things again. The summer will be busy with school events, Japanese classes, and hopefully some more trips to visit new places! We’ll see what new adventures await!

Down by the Bay

Golden Week is officially here!

This weekend marks the start of the holiday period, with a three-day weekend this week, and four more days off starting on Thursday. Instead of going travelling for the full vacation, I opted to take a couple of day trips. Yesterday (Saturday) was the first of my two planned trips. A couple of my teammates and I decided to visit Matsushima Bay, an area known for its picturesque views of pine-tree clad islands dotting the ocean landscape. I’ve seen the ocean quite a bit back home, but I figured it would be fun to see a new view of it. The journey to Matsushima Bay also goes through Sendai, a large city in Miyagi Prefecture (the prefecture directly north of us), and I was interested in seeing that too, since I’ve never been there before.

On Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early and hopped on the 7 o’clock train in order to catch the 8 o’clock bus to Sendai. The bus ride to Sendai is two hours long – twice as long as the shinkansen, but half the price, so that suited my budget travel mentality just fine! From Sendai, we took another 40-minute train ride to Matsushima Bay.

Upon arriving at the bay, our first agenda was to hunt down something for lunch. What we most wanted to do was to visit Fukuura Island, an island that has a footbridge built out to it. So we bought some picnic items, paid the 200-yen fee to get onto the bridge, and made our way out to the island.

The weather was perfectly summer-like, and it was a wonderful feeling to be walking out over the shimmering ocean, with views of the surrounding islands.

We ate our picnic on a broad expanse of lawn, with a tulip garden and a view of the sea:

The beach had hundreds of little shells that looked like elongated snail shells. I was going to collect some, but every one that I picked up still had a living being snuggled up inside it.

We wandered around the island and observed the bay from several outlooks.

The paths led through the forest and were pleasantly green:

Look at all the pine cones covering the boughs!

From this view, we could see several small islands, including a tiny one that contained a solitary pine tree.

After returning from the island, we wandered around town a bit more, visiting a temple that had another great outlook, including this one of the bridge:

And, of course, we also noshed on some of the local specialties. One of my teammates tried an oyster, and I had a taste of her edamame-flavored ice cream. Zunda, a sweet edamame paste, is a well-known food in this area. The ice cream was OK, but I decided to go for a strawberry/blueberry/cranberry twist.

After several hours, we headed back to Sendai, where we waited for our lengthy bus ride home. Most of our day was probably spent on the bus and trains, but it was very refreshing to see the coast and to get out and enjoy some beautiful nature. Trip number one – a success! Stop by again next week for the story of trip number two!

Goodbye Sakura, Hello Summer!

Well, it’s finally the end of cherry blossom season! Last week we did hanami – flower viewing – which is an annual tradition in Japan and basically consists of eating a picnic near blossoming cherry trees. It turned out to be a miserably cold, showery day, which put a damper on our viewing enjoyment. But at least I can say I got my hanami experience in for the year!

This week, the cherry blossoms have been slowly fluttering off the trees. We’ve had some windy and rainy days, which have contributed to the denuding of the trees. Earlier this week, there were so many cherry blossoms that there was actually a stream of them floating down the river. I thought it was pretty cool, so I took a video of it!

Yesterday I had another adventure, as one of our Japanese friends invited me to go walking with her in the nearby town of Segawa. Apparently, the town was having their second annual walking event, which consisted of paying a small fee, walking a 3-km or 5-km course, and then being served lunch at the community center. In addition to the walking, there was to be a koinobori (carp flag) raising beforehand, so we decided to participate in that as well.

The day turned out to be gorgeous, with summer-like temperatures. We arrived in plenty of time for the flag raising. Koinobori are flags in the shape of carp, which are traditionally flown this time of year in honor of Children’s Day on May 5th. You can read more about that holiday here: http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/explore/calendar/may/children.html.

The flags that were to be raised at this event were quite long. We helped tie them to a wire, which was attached to a pole at one end, and to the top of a tall tree at the other!

The flags waiting to be hung:

The flag raising:

After the lifting of the fish, we prepared for our walk. In true Japanese fashion, we spent time stretching first, moving our bodies in time to the “Radio Taisou,” a music track with stretching instructions which apparently is well known as a warm-up song here (you can watch a version of it that I found on YouTube at this link). After a proper amount of stretching, we set out for some strolling. My friend and I had chosen the 5-km course, so away we went, over country roads and through the woods and hills filled with fresh spring foliage (or, as my friend taught me to say in Japanese, shinryoku, which can be translated as “new green”).

It was a gorgeous day for a walk! This was one of the hilltop houses that we found tucked away in the woods as we walked:

The walk took about an hour, and the route we were on circled back to the community center. As we were passing under the koinobori again,  we were subjected to the rather jarring intrusion of a political campaigner. This time of year, according to my understanding, the candidates who are running for office have promotional vehicles that troll around town, with white-gloved passengers who wave at bystanders and self-advertising messages projected over a loudspeaker. I’m not sure if the person hoping to win the people’s favor is actually in the car or not. I just know that hearing these loud proclamations can get a little old after awhile!

When we arrived at the community center again, we were served the promised onigiri (rice balls) and tonjiru (pork soup) on low tables in a traditional tatami room. After satisfying our hunger, we said the proper farewells and thank yous and made our way back to the main parking lot. We finished off our day by stopping at the farmer’s market in town and buying gelato cones. We were hoping to try their specialty, green pepper gelato, but they haven’t started serving it yet this year. Instead, I chose milk tea flavor (milk tea, a sweet and creamy tea, is a popular drink over here). Since one of my food goals this year is to try some of the unique flavors of ice cream that are in Japan, I was happy to have an opportunity to work toward that goal. So far this year, I’ve had sakura ice cream and now the milk tea ice cream, so I’d say I’m off to a good start!

See you all again next week!