Adventures in Shimane Prefecture

   
    
    
    
    
    
 

Yesterday. Shimane in one day. No rest for the adventurous……

Edit: okay now that I’ve had time to sleep and process everything, time for some explanations.

Shimane Prefecture is known for Izumo Taisha, a grand shrine dedicated to the god Okuninushi and is the seat of the gods’ meeting for one month of the year. 

According to legend, Okuninushi is the deity of good relationships and marriage, a status he achieved after helping out an adorable white bunny with a bad skin condition and winning the hand of the princess of Inaba.

The castle is well worth a visit as it is one of the twelve original castles that have gone through little renovations or alterations. 

And lastly, the tree trunk. It saw 320 years of history before being chopped down in 2007. 

   
    
   

Road Trip Reactions

It’s a lovely, commitment-free city hall day in June. My notebooks are out, the coffee liberally poured, and The Google is running like a champ. It’s really quite a miracle – not completely lost on me – that the world of navigation has been simplified since the advent of the interwebs. As the Queen of Getting Lost in my family, I used to have to mapquest directions for something as close as the mall two cities over in a country where the streets have names (a.k.a Anywhere But Japan). Albeit street names are practically rendered obsolete and useless in Japan, mostly because of the Things Have Always Been Done This Way tradition of We Will Only Ever Take The Same Route Taken By Our Forefathers, Naming Streets Be Damned 😀 I love Japan. It’s a quirky, beautiful country full of gumption and character, which I wish everyone could see first hand.

By now word has gone round the office that I’m planning a suicidal road trip mission impossible: from Aomori Prefecture to Fukuoka then up to Tokyo to drop off a friend at the airport and back up to Aomori with just enough time to clock in at work by 8 am. It’s a standing tradition by now that whenever anyone comes to refill their coffee (machine of which is just behind my work station), said person stops to comment on the weather and chat me up about my recent inaka experiences. Quick, painless interactions that have now since come to mean this:

“So. You’re planning on going to Fukuoka?” Long pause. Coffee sip. “What are you: a college student or a shakaijin?”

Real knee slapper. Big grin from me and a joking, “Ohohohohoho.”

“But seriously, take it easy. Take a train! Or a camper van. Anything but a kei car.”

Kei cars are karui jidousha (lighter, fuel efficient versions of the white plate car and they are a pain to rev up past 80 kmph, though not impossible).

“Just… don’t.” Coworker shakes head, walks away.

“Ehhhh… why?” I ask after them.

“Traffic,” was the grim response. Apparently despite the fact that southern Japan is at 70-90% humid, no one seems to have qualms about travelling down there by car.

Another coworker comments, “I once went from Osaka to Tottori to Izumo to Hiroshima to Yamaguchi. I gave up at Yamaguchi. At that point Fukuoka seemed too far. Also, I wasn’t an adult like you, I was still an idiot college student. But I hear there’s a shrine that’s famous for housing a god of study. Is that why you’re going?”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like studying. I love learning new things. I’m a shameless nerd. Some might consider this statement condescending. I assure you it’s not. I just didn’t have much else to do growing up in a household where going out or visiting friends was Out Of The Question. Basically it was classical music CDs (the only thing lying around the house apart from mariachi) and unhealthy amounts of Discovery, History, and Bill Nye. I’m starting to realize that most of my social anxiety came from not being allowed to socialize normally with other kids. Bleh.

“Trust me, you won’t make it to Fukuoka. You should quit now,” lovingly said, I assure you. They’re worried I’ll get myself into an accident, or worse yet into an early grave. Suzu-chan, I believe in you! For those of you who do not know, Suzu-chan is my kei car (who’s gotten me through the thick and thin of Akita and Sendai road trips but nothing quite like a 21 hour drive down to Kyushu).

One of the special ed teachers though understands exactly where I’m coming from. He owns a camper van and frequently goes off on weekend adventures. It’s just him, his camper van, and the great outdoors. As soon as he heard that a noob like me was planning a trip of doom he had one of his kids whip out a map of Japan and turned it into a geography lesson for the kid and an Introduction to the Road Trip of Doom 101 with a 3 unit Lab lesson for me. I will have to thank him profusely again next time I see him because it’s quite the advice!

All of this led me to asking The Googles if it was feasible to travel in a camper van and sifting through several forums I’ve come to one conclusion far too late in life: there area lot of idiots online. So many of the people commenting had either never gone on a road trip or had only done a day trip out of their town and were condemning the idea of even setting off for a cross country road trip because they’d had horrible experiences getting lost in the middle of a country where there are no street names and where they clearly didn’t speak the language. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten lost plenty but at least I speak the language. I’ll have to see how much I love or hate Japan after this road trip but for the time being, despite the strange roadways and inconvenient ETC routes (Japan is mountainous, folks. We’re not in flatter-than-a-pancake Kansas anymore), I don’t think this road trip will kill it for me just yet. More word on that when I get back… >.>

And my favorite:

“Oh my God. Just train there. Trains are comfy, kei cars are like Death.”

Over and out.

Una Sera di Tokyo and The Aomori Blues

Okay, so I’ve kept my audience of one hanging in the air (hello, mum) in regards to arrival in Japan. Yes, I am finally here. In my new apartment, the only place with decent free WiFi. Common misconception about Japan: there is no free WiFi anywhere. Why else are internet cafes so huge, eh?

But, yeah! Two years to the day since last I left my beloved Waseda days behind and I still felt genuinely at home despite some minor culture readjustments. Had a great dinner at Tari-ya (a legit Bangladesh curry restaurant located next to Waseda University) on the 28th to mark that two years to the day anniversary. Tari-ya was also my breakfast/last meal before leaving Japan two years ago so it seemed that on a literal and metaphorical note it was the best meal choice to make. After three days of orientation, teaching seminars, training, and meeting some pretty cool people, we got put on planes (or trains depending on our destination) and flown to the ‘Blue Forest’ of Japan. The kanji for Aomori denote ‘blue’ and ‘forest’ but the actual meaning of the word from the indigenous Ainu is thought to mean something more like a ‘protruding hill’. The sounds for the word happened to fit closer to the Japanese ‘AO’ and ‘MORI’ better, hence the adoption of the kanji for ‘blue forest’.

As a whole, the prefecture is known for ranking as one of the poorest, least populated, and on average its citizens also have the least amount of post secondary education. But, it is one damn beautiful prefecture. Rice fields for miles, picturesque farms, and forests that look like they came straight out of a Miyazaki film: between the concrete jungle and convenience of Tokyo or the wild daishizen (great nature) of Tohoku, so far I’m enjoying Tohoku. However, there is one drawback: if you don’t have a car, you’re not going anywhere. I wouldn’t go so far as calling it the Kansas of Japan but it’s getting there.

One very important thing to remember about Japan is that there are two kinds of cars: Yellow Plate and White Plate, or otherwise known as Kei-Car and Regular. The Yellow Plate (Kei-Car) is known for it’s unrivaled fuel efficiency and cheap tax rate, however it comes with significant disadvantages as well. Less powerful than a regular White Plate car and more expensive in upfront costs, Kei-Car will still get you around town. The Kei comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the letter K from the word ‘karui’ which means ‘light weight’.

Mass transport system between districts in Aomori is few, far between, and quite expensive. Gonohemachi actually has no trains and only a few bus lines ergo I need a car. The nearest mall is 30 minutes away. The nearest big city is an hour’s drive. To meet other JETs in the area, my only other option would be to spend a fortune on bus tickets as they run a bit higher in price than Tokyo. My predecessors each bought their own cars (second hand, of course) but they guarantee that I would be delusional to think I could enjoy the Aomori experience without one. They’ve all been so helpful giving me the necessities to move in comfortably. So many JETs are leaving this year so they’re dumping their alcohol, left over foods and goods on my JETs. In turn, after making some choice selections, my colleagues are dumping the majority of it on me, which explains why my house looks like a grocer’s and a UNIQLO all rolled into one. So far, I love my colleague Mina, a Cali-esque native of Michigan who has been teaching for the past two years and I’ll be sad to see her go once her contract for the third year is up in summer 2015.

The person from whom I inherited this gem of an apartment, Michael, was the longest JET that Gonohemachi has known, coming in at a 5 year residency and teaching stint at the local elementary and junior high schools. The adventures so far in Aomori have been limited to the city’s bank (where I now have my new swanky account), meeting the mayor (and drinking apple juice with him), visiting Misawa Air Base, having dinner with the man who can make things happen in the city, frequenting a nice bar owned by Yacchan and his Philippine wife, and in general just getting towed around by car so I can acquaint myself with the surroundings.

Currently, I’m scheduled to teach the first English lesson at the community center for adults. It’s extra work that earns me extra vacation days (which I will gladly take over money – my salary is pretty good to begin with and I need time to travel more so than money). Wow. I can’t believe I just wrote that. Normally I’m used to having all the time in the world and not enough cash. But anyway I digress. The work at the elementary and junior high school is what I am paid but I’m more than happy to get to know people, especially the adults (most of whom I assume will be the parents of the kids), and have conversations with them.

And that’s a wrap for now. In the next post I’ll talk more about Japanese summer traditions and cultural events like matsuri (festivals), for which this region is famous. Mexicans understand what I mean when I say: each region has it’s festival and the party doesn’t end!

Over and out 😀