Kyoto, Day 2 – Bamboo and Gold Temples

My second day in Kyoto happened to be on Christmas Day. It was weird to spend Christmas away from family, and needless to say it didn’t really feel like Christmas this year. However, I was happy to have the chance to go to Kyoto, and it was fun to do something new and different even though I did miss my family.

One of my teammates was also in the Kyoto area around the same time, so we decided to meet up and spend part of the day together in the Arayashima district of Kyoto to do some sightseeing. Since she was staying in a different city, she got in touch with me on Christmas morning to give me her ETA. I was much closer to Arayashima than she was, so I hung out at my guest house for a while before locating the nearest bus stop. I waited, but the bus I was supposed to get on didn’t come. I kept waiting, and still no bus to my destination. I finally got a text from my friend that she had already arrived at Arayashima! I pulled out my phone to check other transportation options, thinking I might catch the subway instead. As I was researching on my phone, a man who was sweeping the sidewalk behind me (I saw so many people sweeping their sidewalks in Kyoto!) asked where I was going. Through some basic English, he communicated that I needed to go “up” the pedestrian walkway and then “down” to the other side of the street to get to a different bus stop. I smiled gratefully as I dashed off to the stop, where I was picked up promptly by the next bus headed to Arayashima.

Finally, about 40 minutes later, I met my friend in Arayashima. Our first stop was one of the major attractions of the area – a giant bamboo grove. It wasn’t very large area-wise, but the bamboo was TALL and towered regally overhead.

After traversing through the bamboo grove, we did a little exploring and ended up climbing many steps to the top of a hill behind the grove. From there we had an excellent view of some hills and a river, and spent a few minutes taking pictures and eating a snack while enjoying the view. The river was so clear that if you look hard enough in the photo, you can see the rocks below the surface of the water!

We were somewhere near a monkey park, although we didn’t actually go to it. Apparently, there was a chance that monkeys might be in the vicinity, though, because we saw this sign:

After our little break, we walked back downhill and headed back toward the town area, crossing a historic bridge. As soon as we’d crossed, we decided it was about time for something to fill our hungry tummies, so we headed back across the bridge to an okonimiyaki joint in the main part of town.

What is okonomiyaki, you ask?

Only my favorite food EVER!!

Actually, it’s not. But I do like it quite a bit, and even have my own homemade version that I whip up quite frequently. I’d had okonomiyaki at a restaurant during my first trip to Japan (way back in 2009!), but had not had it since, other than the kind I make at home. So it was definitely on my “bucket list” of things to do in Japan this time around.

Basically, okonomiyaki is like a cabbage “pancake.” To make it, you whip up a thick pancake-type batter and throw in shredded cabbage and whatever else you want. (“Okonomiyaki” literally means “baked [thing] as you like it”). Some sort of meat, such as beef, pork, or seafood, is commonly added. I make my homemade version with onions, shredded carrots, and bacon. You spread the batter in a frying pan and cook it up on both sides, then add mayo (a perennial Japanese favorite) and okonomiyaki sauce (somewhat like barbecue sauce).

At the place my friend and I went to, I was a little disappointed because, instead of letting us fry up our own okonomiyaki on the hot grill that was at our table, they fried it for us and delivered it to our table already cooked. Oh well. It was still tasty!

After our venture in Arayashima, we headed to Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion temple that’s one of the most famous landmarks in Kyoto. I wasn’t necessarily sure if I wanted to pay the 400 yen to go see it. This was not to go in it, mind you – this was just to get close enough to see the thing! However, even though I’m not a huge temple/shrine fan, I’d decided that this building was noteworthy enough for me part with four hundred of my hard-earned yen.

As it turns out, I ended up being quite happy with my decision. There were TONS of people, but I was still able to sneak in some shots of the glistening temple. It was kind of a landmark experience for me, because it made me realize that these famous places that I’ve had images of for so long – for example, on Japanese postcards that I had as a child – are places that I’m actually seeing IN PERSON. It wasn’t that I had dreamed of seeing that particular place for a long time, but rather that I’ve dreamed of seeing Japan for so long – and even though I’ve been in Japan for quite some time, being able to travel and do some sightseeing gave me a fresh realization that my dream of being in Japan has actually come true.

After Kinkakuji, my friend headed home, but I decided to stay in the area and walk to Kitano Tenmangu shrine, where I’d heard that there was a large flea market every month on the 25th. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to visit it, since I was fortunate enough to be there on the 25th! Because it was a little later in the day, some of the vendors were finishing up, but there were still many, many vendors who were open for business. It was fun to walk through and browse, even though I didn’t see anything that I just had to have. I wandered around and got a few shots of the shrine:

I saw some people in costume working there, although I’m not sure if they were ordinary workers or if they were just performing for a special occasion:

According to the zodiac calendar, it’s the year of the wild boar, so I saw pictures of boars in many different places throughout my stay!

After the market, I proceeded to walk to the Nishijin Textile Center, which I’d heard was an interesting place to visit. I got there around closing time, so some of the attractions were finished for the day, but there was a lady demonstrating how to use a foot-powered loom to make an obi (the belt of a kimono). It was quite fascinating, and I stood for some time watching her and trying to figure out how it worked, though I’m afraid my poor un-mechanically minded self could not make much sense of it all. If anyone knows anything about looms, please enlighten me!

I finally walked home, cold, tired, and hungry. I stopped at a convenience store – oh Japan, how I love your convenience stores! – and, since it was Christmas, I bought the traditional Japanese Christmas food, fried chicken. With an accompanying salad and a chocolate orange ice cream cup to go with it, I was quite happy!

It hadn’t been a traditional Christmas, but it had been a great day, and I went to bed a happy traveller!

 

Kyoto, Day 1 – Hello, Kyoto!

Hello, friends!

Welcome to a new mini-series of posts about my winter vacation trip to Kyoto! Happily, I gathered enough material to write about for several posts, so the upcoming weeks will contain posts about the various things I did on the trip! I was gone for seven whole days, so I’d like to write one post about each day. We’ll see if it actually turns out that way, but that’s my goal!

First, a little background: Kyoto is an old city, the former capital of Japan (which is now Tokyo). It’s in what is called the Kansai region, and is located to the southwest of Tokyo. Since I live several hours north of Tokyo, it’s quite a distance from my house, which is why I waited for a long vacation to go. By shinkansen (bullet train), it takes 4 hours and is 20,700 yen, or about 190 dollars. Being the cheapskate that I am, I decided to do the less expensive but slower option, which is an overnight bus that takes 9.5 hours and is about 11,600 yen (107 dollars). Although I had to sleep on the bus, which is of course not as comfortable as a bed, the plus side to this is that since I got to my destination early in the morning, and at the end of my stay left on the return bus at 10 at night, it basically gave me two extra full days, for which I did not have to pay for accommodations, in the Kyoto area. Because it gave me a better bargain for my money (not that saving money is CONSTANTLY on my mind, you know!), I was quite tickled with the arrangement.

On Sunday, December 23, I left at 9 p.m. from the Koriyama train station and hopped on the (double decker!) bus. Although I didn’t sleep all that soundly, I was able to get some sleep, and arrived at Kyoto Station around 6:30 a.m. on December 24. Unfortunately, nothing was open at that hour, and I couldn’t check into my guest house until 9:30! I found a place to sit in the train station and camped out until one of the station’s bakeries opened. I got a pastry and sat there for awhile, then went to the tourist information center and grabbed some brochures before heading to the guest house. Thankfully, they let me drop my luggage off early so I didn’t have to tote it around all day, and they were nice enough to let me check in as well!

After looking at Google Maps (best direction finder EVER!) on my phone, I discovered that one of the areas I wanted to visit in Kyoto was only half an hour’s walk from my guest house. Since I’d been expecting to take the bus, I was pleased that it was close enough to walk. I’ll save my 230 yen, thank you! I began walking and arrived in the Higashiyama district in the late morning. The area was filled with restaurants and souvenir shops lining the streets, with one of the main streets leading up to Kiyomizudera Temple.

Let me tell you straight up, I don’t consider myself a temple/shrine aficionado. First of all, I don’t believe in what they embody – I know that God is a living Being and does not exist in idols or spirits of nature. Also, I’ve seen my share of temples and shrines here in Japan, so I’ve kind of adopted the attitude, “Seen one, seen them all.” That being said, as I reached the top of the street in Higashiyama and saw Kiyomizudera looming on the hill ahead of me, it kind of took my breath away. First of all, it was big!! Also, it seemed to be positioned just right so that its orange features stood out against the blue of the sky. I guess there’s something to be said for sheer size and architecture which still has the power to impress even the usually unimpressed me.

Here is the background pagoda up close:

I didn’t do much exploring here; in fact, I didn’t even get to the main temple hall, which is apparently quite famous (although I think it was under construction). But as I said before, not being a huge temple fan, I didn’t feel that I was missing out on much.

Another temple, Yasaka Pagoda, was on a side street:

Kimono rental shops were all over, and girls in kimono were EVERYWHERE!

I spent a good amount of time wandering the streets and poking through the various souvenir shops, especially Hello Kitty! I even got my picture taken with the “tea ceremony” version of Hello Kitty, which a kind store attendant took for me.

I did some more walking to different landmarks – so much so that I’ve kind of forgotten where I went and why I went there. Here is one stop I made at the Ryozen Kannon Temple, where one can pay to go inside and see Kannon, the “Goddess of Mercy.” I didn’t care to go in, but I could see her peeking out from behind the gate:

The main perk to visiting this temple was the public restroom, which had an electrical outlet for me to recharge my phone!

Even though it was the end of December, there was still a little beautiful fall foliage left:

Another temple (shrine?) whose name I can’t remember:

By the end of the day, my little legs were pretty much dead from walking, since I also opted to walk home instead of riding the bus. I walked back through the Gion area, which is known for its large population of geisha (called geiko in Kyoto), or high-class entertainers. I read a book about geisha during my stay, which helped inform me of this subculture and perked my interest in seeing a geiko or maiko (geiko trainee). According to the information I read, geisha learn a lot of skills such as dance, tea ceremony, and playing musical instruments, and they entertain at classy, sometimes high-profile meetings and dinners in special tea rooms. I think the Western impression is that these women give sexual favors as well, but according to what I read, that is not part of the job description.

I kept my eyes peeled for a peek at a geiko or maiko, since I’d heard that it was possible to spy one walking to an evening appointment, but the problem was that many, many people in that area rent kimono for the day and waltz around in those. When I was walking down a side street earlier in the day, I did see a person who was dressed like a maiko in the midst of a photo shoot. I think she was just dressed up, not an actual maiko, but I sneaked in a quick picture anyway and let my imagination pretend that she was the real thing. Don’t burst my bubble, OK?

Here is yet another shrine, Yasaka Shrine, near the Gion district:

By the time I tottered back to the general area of my guest house, I was one tired and hungry puppy. After researching dinner options on my phone, I decided to go to a ramen shop which was – oh, yes – BACK in the direction I had come from. Not that far, fortunately, but it was cold. And dark. Back I went, to a little hole-in-the-wall ramen shop so characteristic of Japan. I popped inside and ordered the smallest bowl of ramen that they had, since ramen portions tend to be gigantic. With its flavorful pork, hard-boiled egg, and veggies swimming in bowl of delicious broth and noodles, it hit the spot!

The only other customer was a middle-aged lady sitting at the counter. She chatted with me a little, both in Japanese and in English. She even gave me her name card and told me I could call her. Then she proceeded to tell me – if I understood her correctly – that she used to be a geisha! I tried asking her more about it, but didn’t really understand all of her answers. Well, maybe I was just hyper-alert to the subject since I was in geisha-hunting mode, but it still excited me to think maybe I was talking to a former geisha.

After satisfying my stomach with ramen, I finally landed back at my guest house, cozying up in the little cubby which I had rented. It wasn’t the typical dorm room, but rather a private little loft room – not big enough to stand in, but with its own door and lock so I could feel totally safe and at ease…

And so ended Day 1!

Samurai Parading and Boat Rowing

Last weekend, on our second long weekend in a row (yay!), our employers took us to Aizu’s annual samurai parade. Since we went last year, and I posted some pictures and videos of it then, I decided to focus on some different aspects of the parade.

First, the food!

The performances were pretty much the same as last year. But I still filmed a couple of my favorites:

In the video below, I didn’t realize until after I filmed that there is an annoying squeaky toy sound throughout. I guess one of the kids seated near us must have found the toy more interesting than the parade. In any case, it’s a good show!

This year, instead of visiting the nearby castle after the parade, our employers took us to Goshikinuma, a group of lakes in the highlands of Mount Bandai. First we ate at an excellent restaurant which served hamburg, which is kind of like meatloaf but less meatloaf-y. I guess we might call it Salisbury steak in the U.S.

Anyway, after our delicious lunch of hamburg, fresh crusty bread, and cake, we went to the lake. Unfortunately, we only had about an hour to spend, but we used our time wisely by going on a rowboat adventure and then hiking for the remaining twenty minutes.

It was a long day, but packed full of good experiences. I came back with a headache but lots of good memories. I’d really wanted to see the Goshikinuma lakes, so it was nice to be able to cross that off my bucket list, even though I didn’t get to spend nearly as long as I’d wanted to! But it was great to enjoy one of the final warm days of the season. It’s only going to keep getting cooler from here, so I’ll take summer while it lasts!

Hello Home, I’m Back From Home

Hello everyone! Three weeks later (from my last post), I’m finally back in Blog World! It’s been a busy three weeks, stuffed with my all-too-quick trip to the States and my subsequent first week back at work. Time to take a breather!

My trip home was amazing! I got to see my youngest brother get married, and to squeeze in a quick visit to my grandparents who live out of state. I also got to spend quality time with my siblings, and to meet my niece for the first time! Although my visit was a mere seven days, I was thankful for everything I got to experience while I was home. Needless to say, I also ate a fair amount of pizza – my most-missed American food – and blackberry chip and cherry chip ice cream.

The trip out was a bit emotionally stressful, as a typhoon was rolling into Tokyo right around the same date that my flight was supposed to go out. However, when I arrived in Tokyo, it was only a bit rainy and windy, so my flight departed on time and I arrived in the States safe, sound, and on schedule.

On the way back, it appeared to be smooth sailing as well – genial summer weather, with my 5:47 a.m. flight to D.C. making good time and delivering us to the city a bit early. I located my departure gate for Chicago and wandered around, looking for an open spot to sit and charge my laptop. I did some Japanese study online for awhile, then at boarding time got up and made my way to the correct gate – just in time to hear that the flight had been delayed for an hour due to maintenance issues. “Any customers with concerns about missing connecting flights, please go to the service desk,” we were told. Well, I was supposed to have a two-hour layover in Chicago before my Japan flight, so hopefully I’d have time. But still, if I had to switch terminals, it could be a bit tight. I hopped into the customer service line, just in case.

As I was standing in the giant line leading up to the customer service desk (fortunately more toward the front than the back), the gentleman behind me said, “They just delayed the flight by another half hour.” OK, so maybe I WOULD miss my connection. When I got to the desk, the agent told me that he would switch me to the next flight to Japan, which left half an hour later. I agreed and hoped that would be an easy solution. I went back to the gate to wait, snagging some complimentary snacks which the airport personnel kindly put out as an apology for the wait.

At the appointed time to board, there was still no sign of action, and the maintenance workers were still roaming about near our plane. The agents kept announcing that they were waiting to hear what was going on. Finally, about twenty minutes later, we boarded, only to wait for ANOTHER maintenance issue to be dealt with. Finally, we taxiied for a few yards, then stopped for no apparent reason. The pilot announced that there had been another issue they’d had to run by someone or other, and, oh yes, due to weather in Chicago, we might not be allowed to take off. Fortunately, a few minutes later, we began taxiing for real, and finally took off. A crying baby (just a couple of rows behind me) and a jolty landing polished the whole trip off nicely.

Oh, but wait. We were originally supposed to land at 10:50 a.m., and it’s now 3:00 p.m. The airline had already emailed me that I’d been rescheduled for another flight to Japan – at one p.m. THE NEXT DAY. Considering that I had only planned one gap day in between my return to Japan and the start of work, I didn’t really want to waste a full day hanging around in Chicago. I went to the service desk. “Do you have anything earlier?” Well, only the one at 12:40 p.m. tomorrow.

Oh.

I took the hotel voucher and the one meal voucher that they gave me, and picked up a hamburger and M&M McFlurry from McDonald’s before catching a shuttle to my hotel. Disappointed in the turn of events, but thankful to at least have a free hotel stay, I lounged around until the next day, when I finally got on a Japan-bound flight. After 12 hours in the air and another 5 hours on trains (or waiting for them), I made it back to my little Japanese apartment and soon collapsed into bed.

The next day it was back to work, although all things considered, I didn’t feel as bad as I could have. Now, a week later, my body is finally re-adjusting back to Japanese time, and I think my body and mind are back in the swing of things. I’m a bit emotionally tumultuous every time I return home, trying to remember who I am and to re-adjust from being an American living in Japan to just being an American. It doesn’t take me long to slide back into the routine of American life, although I find myself losing the Japanese part of me, which I don’t want either! I guess that will all be stuff to deal with when I go back to America for good and have to deal with all that re-entry and reverse culture shock business.  For now, I’m two people living in two worlds. I think of my little apartment here in Japan as home, and yet my home in America will always be more home than any other home is. At least for now. 🙂

Looking ahead, I’m in the home stretch – the final half-year of my two years here. I never thought I’d say that I’m ready to be back in America after only two years, but oddly, I am. It was really hard for me to leave home (the American one) this time, and I’m already looking forward to things I might do when I get back. However, I know how easy it is to look with longing on past and future lives, and to take for granted the one we’re living now. So my goal for the next seven months is to really capitalize on my time here, learning Japanese, enjoying my friends, and taking advantage of travel and cultural opportunities as they come up.

Here’s to making the most of the now, and to enjoying the next half a year together. Talk to you all next week!

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!

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!

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!

Castles and Candles

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!

Walking in an Edo Wonderland, Part 2

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.

Yunokamionsen Station is definitely a quaint little place. According to this site http://www.tif.ne.jp/lang/en/sightseeing/detail.php?id=354&category=1, this station is the only one with a thatched roof in Japan. Inside the minuscule station, there is a waiting area with a wood-burning fireplace, free green tea, and a few shelves of books.

There is even a foot bath right outside!

Our trip to Ouchijuku was fun and refreshing, but our day didn’t stop there! Come back next week to find out where we decided to go afterwards!