Hello readers! I’m back with another episode of my winter adventures during our long weekend in February. I posted previously about the visit my teammate and I took to Ouchijuku, an Edo-period village. What I didn’t write about is where we we went afterward…
As I mentioned before, we had wandered around Ouchijuku for awhile, eaten lunch, climbed the snow-covered hill behind the village, and taken in some dance performances. Although we could have stayed for more activities, by mid-afternoon we both felt as though we had gotten our fill of the village. So we decided to hop back on the train and take a little detour (which was on our way home anyway) to the city of Aizu Wakamatsu. It just so happened that this particular weekend coincided with the city’s painted candle festival (read more about that here), so we decided to add to our repertoire of experiences for the day and go visit that as well.
After arriving in Aizu Wakamatsu, we took a bus to Tsuruga Castle. This was the castle we had visited in the fall, when our employers brought us for a visit after the samurai parade. This was a completely different experience, however – snow blanketed the ground, and the place was lit with the glow of hundreds of candles. It was a beautiful sight!
The side of the road leading to the castle was dotted with lanterns, each containing a candle:
Since I was ravenously hungry, our first stop was at a small food shop near the castle. I bought a stick of tempura manjuu (deep fried buns filled with sweet bean paste), which I promptly devoured. Let me tell you, if you haven’t tasted one of these skewered balls of crispy sweet goodness, you haven’t lived yet. AMAZING.
Next, we ventured up to the castle grounds, admiring the different kinds of lanterns that we saw. The field by the castle was full of them:
There was a display of creations representing different schools, which were also lit up (with candles, I presume, although I didn’t actually look in any of them).
The field was surrounded by a border of pretty fluted lanterns:
View of the castle from the far side of the field:
As we wandered around, we also discovered a small area that was filled with punched metal lanterns. This was one of my favorite displays – the handiwork on the lanterns was exquisite!
After taking in the sights at the castle, we waited for what seemed an excessively long time for a bus to take us back to the train station. I tried not to freeze to death as I clutched my kairo, or heating pack. They have an abundance of these self-heating packs over here – just bend them back and forth, and they give off heat! They may have them in America, too, but I’ve never used them there. Anyway…eventually, the bus did come, and we managed to make all our train connections and arrive safely back home before it got indecently late. Even though we’d had hours of commuting time for just a day trip, we’d visited the historic village of Ouchijuku, eaten hot soba and delicious fried manju, and seen the beauty of Tsuruga Castle in the candlelight. Not a bad way to spend a winter weekend!
Welcome to this week’s post! Last week, we left off right in the middle of the trip I took with my friend to Ouchijuku, an Edo-period village. This week, we’ll resume the tour of this beautiful, snow-covered village!
One thing we decided to do after we’d feasted on mountain vegetable soba was climb up to the overlook behind the village. Although there was a staircase, it was covered with snow, and it was packed hard from all the people who had been going up and down. Luckily, my friend and I both had boots with good tread, so we made it up without any catastrophes. The view overlooking the village was beautiful!
After taking our fill of scenic shots, we made our way back down the slippery steps. We began to walk beyond the village through a snow-covered field to a shrine, but we heard over the loudspeaker that one of the festival events was starting. It was an event I wanted to see, so we turned back and found the crowd of people near the central activity area. I wasn’t sure exactly what the event would be, only that it involved rice cakes (which I’m always eager to be involved with!). It turns out that the festival attendees were dressing a bare tree with colored rice cake balls, or dango. This activity, called dango-sashi, is a traditional event for this time of year, as this site explains: https://fukushima-guide.jp/experience/dango-sashi/. It wasn’t something I wanted to participate in, but it was interesting to watch!
After passing out what must have been hundreds of rice cakes to the festival goers, and encouraging them to keep sticking them onto the tree branches, the people in charge finally decided that the trees were loaded enough to raise. (There were actually two small trees, but it’s hard to see the back one in the picture). With lots of encouragement and interesting sound effects from the announcers, the colorful tree was hoisted into the air:
Against the backdrop of the pale blue sky, it was a pretty sight!
After the dango-sashi, we hung around for a couple more events. There were some students dressed in traditional garb, who performed some interesting dances. After that was a Shinto dance involving two men under a sheet and a mask. Neither my friend nor I cared to watch that, so instead we wandered around the village some more, enjoying the sights. Around four o’clock, we decided to head out, so we took a very packed bus back to the train station. There, I was able to get some photos of the picturesque area surrounding the station.
Most of my teammates took this opportunity to fly up to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, to attend the Sapporo Snow Festival. I thought about it, but it wasn’t something I cared about enough to spend the money on. Instead, I and the one other teacher who had decided not to go to Hokkaido took a little day trip to a place called Ouchijuku. It’s a traditional village from the Edo period, and they were having their own snow festival. It turned out to be a fun experience, although it took quite awhile to get there!
Here’s a little picture/video tour of our trip:
I have my geography mixed up a little in the video – apparently the village is located in Shimogo Town, not Yunokami Onsen (that’s the train station), and the video footage is of the entrance to the village.
The village consists of a street lined with traditional thatched houses.
Different snow sculptures, including lamps, lined the street:
There were also beautiful colored balls of ice…
…and snow houses that you could get inside!
Most of the houses served as souvenir shops and/or restaurants. One of the shops specialized in fabric ornaments, like these flowers:
My friend and I were super hungry upon arriving at the village, so we soon decided to have some lunch. Most of the restaurants sold soba and udon (Japanese noodles), so we rather randomly chose one of the shops, and ordered soba with mountain vegetables. It also came with a side of daikon pickles and some sort of fern dish.
This was the restaurant we ate at. It had the cutest old lady sitting outside!
After lunch was when the festivities started, and when we did a little hiking to get some photos of the village from a higher perspective. But that’s a story for next week… 🙂
This weekend passed remarkably quickly…is it really Sunday evening already? Yes, it is, and it’s back to work tomorrow! Fortunately, the weekend’s events were all good ones. On Saturday morning, the four of us teachers who work at the kindergarten went to the three- and four-year-olds’ Christmas performance. That was fun – but more about that next week!
The main event that we were looking forward to was a weekend trip to Hana-no-yu, an onsen resort in a nearby town. Our employers had promised us this trip after we completed English camp, the special day programs that we held at elementary schools in October. The senior teachers from our team had all been to this resort multiple times, but it was the first time for us new teachers! We’d heard positive things about it, so we were all excited to go.
In the afternoon, the twelve of us piled into two vans for the drive to Hana-no-yu. About an hour later, we arrived at the resort. Well, I’m not sure that resort is the right word, but it’s basically a hotel complex that has hot spring baths. Upon our arrival, we were instructed that the tenth floor baths were open for women before dinner, and the first floor baths were open for men. After that, they switched. We were also shown our rooms and told what time to meet for dinner. Then we were given free reign until dinnertime.
This was only my third time at a public bath, but when in Japan, do as the Japanese do, right? My coworker and I, who were sharing a room, decided to hit the baths right away. We put on the provided yukata and slippers, and shuffled our way upstairs to the tenth-floor bath. We did the mandatory scrub-down, then explored the several baths that were available.
Fortunately, this experience was nothing like my infamous encounter with the sleazy public bath in September. These baths were clean and spacious. Since they were on the top floor, we were able to look out at the surrounding hills and town. It was very relaxing to soak in the piping hot water and gaze at the clear, dusky sky as the day faded away.
Unfortunately, the water at most of these baths is so hot that I can’t stand it for too long. After a few minutes, my heart rate increases, and my mouth starts feeling dry and metallic. It’s perfectly acceptable to sit on the edge of the tub, or get out altogether for awhile to cool off. And that’s what I did – but after soaking in several different tubs, I knew my body just couldn’t take any more heat. I went back down to my room to relax before dinner.
Dinner was wonderful – a buffet with lots of food choices, both Japanese and otherwise, and my favorite part – ice cream! There were even chocolate chips, sprinkles, and chocolate sauce, so I could make a good old-fashioned American sundae. Delicious!
After dinner, we decided to try the first-floor baths, since they were now open to the women. There was an indoor bath, but there was some outdoor air coming in, so the room was very steamy and it was hard to see. There were also outdoor baths, so we decided to give those a try.
That’s when I found my heaven. One of the outdoor baths was a round wooden tub, filled to the brim with warm water – but not too hot. Although it was nighttime, we could still see some of the aspects of the landscaping in front of the tub, including a small tree that still had most of its leaves intact. My friend and I sat there for the longest time, enjoying the delicious contrast of the warm water and the chilly November air. (Before anyone freaks out, yes the outdoor baths are walled in and there is complete privacy!)
I spent quite a while trying all the outdoor baths, and soaking for a long time in the ones that were a comfortable temperature. By the time I headed back to my room, I was toasty warm and a bit dehydrated.
The evening ended with an energetic karaoke party held by some of my teammates in one of the hotel’s four karaoke rooms. I’d never done karaoke before, so I just observed for a while, then decided to get some sleep.
In the morning, breakfast was another buffet. There were a lot of Japanese meal options, but since I like having traditional “American” breakfast foods in the morning, I mostly stuck with those. I found some flaky pastries, including some with a chocolate filling. We were told that the bread was handmade – on the premises, I assume. They were truly amazing – I felt like I was at a French patisserie!
After breakfast, it was time to leave. Our relaxing weekend was over! Still, it was a wonderful experience, and I’m grateful that our employers were kind enough to take us!
Welcome back to part two of our trip to Nikko! After our morning explorations of the shrines and our hot noodle-bowl lunch, we made our way to my favorite part of the trip, the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. The “abyss” is a gorge with a stream flowing through it, and a path has been created beside the gorge so that people can walk along it and enjoy the scenery. It was quiet and peaceful, with very few tourists, and the beauty of the stream was amazing.
Before we got to the stream, there was a row of Jizo, which are a type of Buddhist statue. They are often dressed in red bibs.
We then made our way through the woods along the gorge. There was a gorgeous crystal-clear stream, and this small waterfall:
We explored some of the paths leading away from the gorge as well, and found a cemetery. Some of the monuments were overgrown with lichens:
Next, we visited the Shinkyo Bridge. I heard somewhere, although I don’t know how true it is, that it’s the most photographed bridge in Japan. So what did we do? Why, took pictures of it, of course!
And that’s why they say, “Don’t say kekkou…until you’ve been to Nikko.” (“Kekkou” in Japanese means “satisfied” or “wonderful.”) The ancient architecture, calming nature, and picturesque scenery in Nikko means you haven’t truly lived until you’ve been there. Or so say the people who are trying to persuade you to visit. 🙂 It’s true that it is a beloved tourist spot in Japan, and I saw many foreigners there from all over the world. It was definitely worth at least a day trip. And now, I can say that I’m satisfied!
We headed home in late afternoon, via a local train and then the shinkansen, or bullet train. While we were waiting for our own (not very fast) shinkansen, we saw a couple of the really fast ones go by. I had never actually seen one of the super speedy ones, and I was shocked at how fast they went. I tried taking a video, and I still don’t think I was able to fully capture the speed. It was a take-your-breath-away type of speed. Each time one went by, I just stared after it in a state of shock.
Well, that finishes the tale of our trip to Nikko. See you next week!
Well, I’m finally getting around to posting about my trip to Nikko! One of my teammates and I went there on a day trip in September, but I’ve had so many other things to blog about that I haven’t had the chance to write about it. It’s one of the top tourist spots in Japan, so enjoy the pictures and come along on a virtual trip with me!
Our trip got off to a late start due to an earthquake the previous night. It wasn’t too bad, but apparently it was bad enough that it set the trains back. Our first train was delayed by at least forty minutes, and since we had three trains to take, that means we didn’t roll into Nikko until close to noon. Our first stop was at Toshogu Shrine, the place where Tokugawa Ieyasu (a very important person in Japanese history!) is entombed. This place is very famous, as it actually contains many different historic Shinto and Buddhist buildings tucked into Nikko’s beautiful forest. Here is the area leading up to the shrine:
Written prayers that people tie to branches:
Right outside the gate to the main shrine complex, something that appeared to be a stage was being built. I thought it was an odd place to see such a modern structure. I’m assuming it was temporary, but I have no idea why it was there!
My friend decided to go inside the main complex and have a look around at the famous buildings, which supposedly had some fabulous architecture. I didn’t feel like dishing out the entrance fee, so I decided to explore the surrounding area, which contained many other buildings and things to look at.
The path beside the main shrine complex was very picturesque. For some reason, people had placed many small rocks on a stump and on the stone lamps lining the walkway. I’m assuming it has some religious and/or superstitious significance, but I’m not sure what.
This circular arrangement was behind one of the shrine’s gates. From what I could determine, it appeared that people were supposed to go through and around it a certain number of times for good luck.
After spending a good chunk of time at Toshogu Shrine, we headed to a nearby restaurant for lunch – a noodle bowl containing Nikko’s specialty, dried tofu skins (the off-white stuff on the left-hand side of the dish in the picture below). It wasn’t anything spectacular, but I thought it was tasty.
And so ends today’s portion of our Nikko adventures…come back next week to read about the rest of our explorations in Nikko, as well as why you shouldn’t say “kekkou”!
So last weekend we had a typhoon. Well, not the real deal, since we’re not right on the coast. But we did have strong winds and heavy rain, and Monday’s classes got cancelled so we only had to do a few hours of prep work and then were able to go home! There was a lot of talk about the typhoon beforehand, but it didn’t turn out to be anything alarming. Just A LOT of rain. On the final day of the typhoon (Monday), I was really interested to check out the river and see how it had changed. I was genuinely surprised to see how much it had expanded! Check out the video below to see it!
But first, a couple pictures of how the river normally looks, so you can compare. These pictures were taken in the spring:
And now, the post-typhoon video:
Fortunately, the impending typhoon did not affect our weekend plans. The city’s tourism board had invited several of us to join their green tourism event, which is apparently a growing trend. It involves going on a tour to the countryside and doing – well, countryside-ish things. This time, the plan was to harvest rice and vegetables on Saturday, and learn to make udon on Sunday. This was actually a real privilege for us to join, since the rest of the tourists (who came from Tokyo!) had to pay for the tour. They were hosted overnight on Saturday night, while we were driven back to our apartments and picked up again Sunday morning by one of the gracious tour administrators.
On Saturday, the first day of the tour, we were picked up and driven to a local farm. We were first served a very hearty lunch of curry and vegetables:
Then it was time to harvest rice, the old-fashioned way! We were taken to a picturesque rice field, where several people were already working.
Part of the rice field, with shocks of rice stalks in the background:
The rice was planted in bunches, so we were taught to take a sharp scythe and cut each bunch at the base. After cutting three bunches, we laid them on the ground, then went back to cut three more. After accumulating twelve bunches, we tied them together with dried rice stalks. It was interesting work, and I really enjoyed it because it reminded me of working in the garden at home! It was hard work, though, and we were marveling at the fact that we had only done a small part and there was still so much that the farmers had left to do. “Wow, do they do it all by hand?” we wondered, looking at the very large field that was left:
Then we asked, and were told that usually machines cut the rice these days. Oh well. So much for that theory.
After cutting down our allotted rice patch and tying the bundles of cut rice together, we hung them upside down on a rack made of sticks stuck in the mud.
After the rice harvesting, we went on to harvest sweet potatoes. It was fun, although pretty much the same as harvesting regular potatoes. Reach in the dirt and dig around til you find one!
We worked for a short time, and then the token “harvesting” was over. (There was still a lot more that the farmers would have to harvest for real later!) We headed back to the house for dinner. First, we made mochi (pounded rice) the old-fashioned way! That involves taking glutinous rice, like this:
And pounding it with sticks, like this!
We were served a delightful dinner of oden (boiled vegetables, eggs, and fish cakes), soup, mochi, passion fruit, and more. After relaxing and enjoying the meal, we were returned home for the night. The next morning, our adventures resumed as we were picked up and driven to a nearby farmhouse. This house is one of Tamura’s hidden treasures – it’s probably only about 15-20 minutes away from my house by foot, and it’s set up like a small museum. The gentleman who acts as a guide there told us that it’s 180 years old, from the Edo period.
The rest of the tour group from Tokyo soon came to join us. First, we listened to the engaging and very funny guide explain some of the history of the house. He also showed us the process of building a fire in a pot that acts as a food cooker. He explained that it was usually used to cook rice, although today he was cooking sweet potatoes in it.
After our tour of the farmhouse, we went inside a nearby community center building to make udon. Udon is a thick noodle that’s very popular here in Japan. The process for making these noodles is similar to when we made soba (buckwheat) noodles, except this time it seemed like we rolled and worked the dough a lot more. We even put it in a bag between newspaper and kneaded it with our feet!
After the udon making, we made a type of sweet that’s common here – a glutinous dough similar to mochi (pounded rice), filled with sweet bean paste. It sounds weird, but it’s quickly becoming a favorite snack of mine!
After our cooking fun, we had lunch, which of course included the noodles and the mochi treats we had made! One of the Japanese women there also graced us with the retelling of some Japanese folk tales – told, of course, in Japanese, so I couldn’t really understand them. 🙂
The day’s program was cut a little bit short, because there were concerns about the incoming typhoon. It had already been raining all day, and it was important to get the people from Tokyo back before things got worse. So after lunch, we ended our visit by heading back out to the farmhouse for a group picture. The hilarious farmhouse guide was there, too. When we’d been talking to him earlier that morning, he’d acted shocked when finding out that the two American teachers who went with me were already married. He exclaimed that he was fifty and still single. Then, when we were taking the group photo, he was standing near us. “Cold-o. Cold-o,” he said. I assumed that he was saying that because of the damp, chilly weather. Then, “My heart is cold-o,” he said. “Find me somebody to love!” Of course, we cracked up about that.
Needless to say, the two days of the tour were jam-packed with new experiences, and it was really fun to get to learn some new things. If you’re interested in seeing video footage (including the funny farmhouse guy!), my friend Kelly, who also went on the tour, took some awesome videos of the trip. She and her husband are expert travelers and have their own YouTube channel called Real World Travelers, so check out the videos she made at the links below!
Welcome to Part 2 of the Yamagata Adventures! Our first day in Yamagata was spent in the city of Yonezawa. However, on day two, we decided to take the train to Kaminoyama Onsen, a town known for its onsen, or hot springs. We discovered after we arrived that the town was having a festival that day, so unbeknownst to us, we had picked just the right day to visit!
After getting off the train in Kaminoyama Onsen, we visited Kaminoyama Castle, a reconstruction of a historic castle.
Next, we walked to a nearby shrine. To our delight, we discovered that there were people in costume, getting ready for a parade later in the day.
We were hanging around, watching the costumed people and trying to figure out what was going on, when a man spoke to us. He began talking – mostly in Japanese – about “armor,” and invited us into a building in which there was a display of samurai armor! The room was filled with men, mostly younger men, who were getting ready to dress up as samurai. The gentleman that invited us in, and another one that spoke good English, were very accommodating and took the time to explain some of the outfits to us, let us take pictures, and even let us try on one of the helmets!
Boy, was that helmet heavy! We were also shown the soldiers’ footwear – rather flimsy-looking straw sandals. I found it a little strange that they would wear such a heavy helmet but have very light footwear. However, I guess since the head is more important, it makes sense that it’s more protected. I think they also had stockings and/or leg coverings too, so that probably helped.
Next, we walked down some of the town’s streets and visited some historic houses that were marked with signs. For the house below, we could actually go inside and look around. There was also a sign out front stating that complimentary beverages were being served in the yard. Sure enough, behind the house was a small pavilion, and several kind ladies offered us tea and a variety of snacks, including handmade items and local specialties. We got to try cherry preserves, pickles, candied gourd, and other interesting things!
I saw this on one of the streets – an old-fashioned Japanese mailbox. I see them once in awhile, and I think they’re so interesting:
We also visited another shrine that had a picturesque row of red gates:
And yes, we did get to see part of the town festival! There were a couple of carts filled with girls and women dressed in traditional costumes, and they were “pulled” by a group of men (I couldn’t see for sure, but it sounded like there were motors on the carts as well). They stopped the carts every few meters and some of the women would get up and perform a dance. We got to see the procession heading out, and then, since we were walking all over town, we continued to hear them and even ended up seeing them again a couple of times.
We had a great time visiting this charming town and enjoying their historic sites and festival. And yes, we did have a few more adventures in Yamagata – stay tuned for the third and final segment of the Yamagata tales, which may or may not involve a sketchy bath house and a meal at a fancy beef restaurant. See you next week!
Well, the good news is, I’ve done enough traveling in the past month that I actually have a backlog of material to use for my blog! No more boring random posts about my visit to the grocery store! 🙂
In September, one of my teammates and I took a trip to the city of Yonezawa, in the neighboring prefecture of Yamagata. We had lots of interesting experiences there, so that’s what the next couple of posts will be about.
We took the shinkansen to Yonezawa on Saturday morning and arrived about mid-morning. These tiles were in part of the sidewalk outside the station. Japan is big on capitalizing on local products and specialties, and apparently these are some of Yonezawa’s.
We tried to check into our hotel but it was too early, so we walked to a nearby park to kill a couple of hours. The park had a temple and other historical buildings, so it was one of the area’s tourist attractions. Outside the entrance to the park was a remarkably large patch of water lilies.
The seed pods, or whatever they are, have the coolest indentations on them:
Inside the park area was a Shinto shrine. This shrine had a red gate near it. The red gate is not unusual for a shrine, but I thought the row of flags behind it was interesting.
The gate in front of the shrine:
The shrine itself. The large ropes in front are connected to bells. People ring the bells when they pray. I can’t remember if they always do…I guess I don’t pay enough attention. 🙂
This is the water that people use to ceremonially cleanse themselves. I don’t know if it’s optional because I feel like I hardly ever seen anybody doing it.
The temple grounds were very picturesque and there was a pretty fish pond.
Surrounding the park was a lovely canal stocked with koi fish. Some people were feeding them, which I thought was interesting and horrifying at the same time. In my opinion, koi are just gross! I went and looked on the other side of the bridge, and even there I could see koi swimming hastily over to get their share of the plunder. The pigeons were also trying to get in on the action…
In front of one of the nearby buildings was this friendly fellow. He has some historical significance but I can’t remember what…
After exploring the park, we wandered around and bought lunch from some vendors. Yonezawa is famous for its beef, so we tried beef croquettes and my friend bought a niku-man, which is a steamed bun filled with meat. Yum! After a leisurely lunch, we walked back to our hotel and checked in. And…that’s all for Part 1! Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Yamagata adventures!
Yesterday our generous employers took us to the nearby city of Aizu to watch their annual samurai parade. The event commemorated the Boshin War of the late 1800s, which was a civil war involving a power struggle between the shogun and the emperor. There were lots of people dressed up in period costumes, and some interesting performers as well. I took lots of photos and videos so enjoy the show!
First, an assortment of soldiers, rulers, and even a princess:
There was also a European character, a historical figure from Prussia who sold outdated rifles to the Japanese during the war (the Japanese woman was the family’s nanny):
As we were watching some of the horses that the soldiers rode, one of my teammates said, “I hope they have someone coming behind to clean up the mess.” Sure enough…they did. But these weren’t just any old pooper scoopers, oh no. They were a costumed part of the parade, and they were dressed as, you guessed it….
At the end of the parade was a teensy tiny (environmentally friendly?) car:
Now, for some videos! (Just a heads-up, the battle scene ends with someone getting “stabbed,” so don’t watch if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing! 🙂 )
After the parade, we went out for lunch, then visited the nearby Tsuruga Castle. Our employer arranged for us to have an English tour, so we got to see the inside. Here are two pictures, one of the exterior and one of the view from the top:
After visiting the castle, we walked back down to the restaurant area and had some ice cream, which appeared to be vanilla but turned out to have a strong milky flavor. Apparently white ice cream doesn’t automatically mean vanilla here? Anyway, we hopped back in the vans for our trip home, with a stop at a bakery so our boss could pick up some fresh bread and rolls. She gave us some of it when we got home, and I got a roll with chunks of sweet potato on it, which was delicious! Japan has a surprising amount of bakery items, and since I LOVE fresh rolls and pastries, that doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. I was pretty wiped out when I got home, but so glad that I got to experience this event and learn more about Japan’s fascinating history!