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.


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: 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, 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!

Walking in an Edo Wonderland

Well, this weekend is a three-day weekend, in which National Foundation Day is observed. According to, this holiday “mark[s] the foundation of Japan and the accession of Emperor Jimmu.” All I know is that it gave me an extra day off, which I am really grateful for!

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… 🙂

Lots of Onsen-ing

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!