Honshu in 1 Week: If there’s one thing I learned…

…about Japan during this whole trip – or so Kimmy said as we were finally en route to Tokyo – it’s that this country is extremely mountainous.

This was after the hundredth dozen set of tunnels we’d passed through. As beautiful of a scenery as we experienced in the early days of the trip, the second half was marked with progressively longer stretches of inter-mountain tunnels, one after another. This was the last leg. Really, I’ve been blessed with such amazing, adventurous friends. This is our short tale of one last hurrah on the open road, our last 7 days as partners in crime…

DAY 1: On the Road Again

Load the car with a year’s worth of luggage, blast a deafening amount of music through the speakers, and drive for as long as humanly possible, or twelve straight hours to be more exact. Mix in an unhealthy dose of Lawson’s coffee and stir liberally.

Oh, conbinis. How you shall be missed. They practically ensured that we could continue driving well past bed time. Sadly, it was the lack of 24 hour gas stations that finally grounded us at 2am in Niigata City at a Michi no Eki (roadside station). Otherwise we would’ve driven until reaching Fukui.

DAY 2: There Be Dinosaurs in Fukui

Having driven the entire length of the first day, I was relegated the duty of morning rest in the backseat while Kim and Elena sped past prefectures until early afternoon, after which I was much recovered from the caffeine crash.

We managed to make it past Kanazawa in record time, well after the lunch rush and the timing worked out like a charm.

Travel Tip 1: Start early in the morning. We left Imabetsu by 5pm because of work obligations earlier in the day but we would have covered so much more ground if we’d started early morning.

But don’t be fooled, this type of travel is not for the finicky or faint of heart. Michi no Eki are fluorescent lit and bug infested. Cicadas in the toilets, Aragogs in the ceilings of the bathrooms… and then there’s the little matter of what was once known as the Circadian Rhythm. Curtains and modernity have largely made it possible for humanity to ignore the call of nature, or rather the call to awake at the wee hours of 4am by summer standards. If I could do it all over again, I would have invested in a sleeping mask.

Travel Tip 2: However, when it can’t be helped or for the late night to early morning drivers there is a sizeable toll road discount if the car is equipped with an ETC and so long as drivers manage to exit by 4am.

For every stop we made, be it for gas or bathroom breaks (or as became more frequently: for both), we were set back anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Factor in breaks and switches if you’ll be on a particularly tight schedule, otherwise if time is of little to no consequences: carpe diem!

Fukui is known for potatoes, mackerel, and dinosaurs. Home to the adorable Fukuisaurus (a legitimate dinosaur, I assure you), there is a science center and dinosaur museum with enough exhibits to keep adults and children occupied all day.

We had only a couple of hours to kill. BUT IT WAS THE BEST!!!!

Not only were “traditional” dinosaurs (the ones we all knew and studied as children) represented, but the museum had a special exhibit for dinosaurs found and dug up on the Asian continent and Pacific. Fukuisaurus was among them, that adorable if derpy hadrosaur.

From the museum and our well-deserved rest, we hastened ourselves back onto the road. Time was of the essence. We had already set back for an extra night, a unanimous decision in a bid to see more of Shimane by the next day.

And it was well worth our sacrifice for an extra night in Tokyo.

DAY 3: The Land of 8 Million Gods and 1 Bunny Rabbit

Izumo Taisha, Matsue Castle… of the list of possibilities, including a possible seaside excursion or trip to a lighthouse, we narrowed down on the two closest. Kyushu had to happen that same night – or never, the hostel was kind enough to let us arrive a day late and we didn’t want to be unreasonably mucha.

Travel Tip 3: For a more luxurious experience, and given enough time, camp your way across Japan. Michi no Eki are a last resort and for the purposes of this trip, given our particular situational parameters, there were our only resort. But a nature resort (no pun intended), is a gorgeous way to get the woodsy back roads experience of Honshu. Make reservations a month in advance.

By the time we crossed the bridge into Kyushu, we were weathered a little worse for wear but still spirited enough to freak out for a hour later as we drove to our little hell-side hostel in Oita Prefecture. Also, the humidity was working wonders for our skin.

DAY 4: The Hells of Beppu

Never been so glad to find myself in hell before, in a manner of speaking. To have made it safely to our primary goal, exhilarating in its own right, received a further energy boost as we appreciated the natural geysers and mineral hot spring waters known as the Hells of Beppu.  Japan’s small scale version of Yellowstone NP, is impressive in its variety of geologic activity if not land masse. The colors were brilliant from milk white to blood red and crystalline stained glass blue.

There was one hell that got away, pressed for time we had to leave for Fukuoka City where Kim was able to partake of some second to last minute Pokemon Center shopping. Once we were all done with omiyage and merchandise, it was yet again time to hit the long road to Miyajima for a night and early morning exploring the geology and scenery of the island.

DAY 5: 1945

Hiroshima is a beautiful city. Lovely riverside walks wind you through a cityscape of modernity and to the vestiges of a fateful day in 1945. The past and the present merge perfectly into each other in Hiroshima and there is no better place to witness it than at the Peace Memorial Park and the attached museum which chronicles a single day of infamy: August 6, 1945.

The museum packs an emotional and psychological punch so be prepared to spend an hour or so sitting on a a quiet bench in the park after your visit. Educational in its history and uplifting in its message of eternal hope, I highly advise all Americans to pay the 50 yen to enter.

Travel Tip 4: The museum has free parking.

DAY 6: Nagoya

 From Hiroshima we made our way to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. Yet again, we were attempting to tick off another Pokemon Center off of Kim’s list, all the while oblivious to the fact that much like the hell that got away there was a Pokemon Center that got away as well: Hiroshima’s. Sigh. But, it gives us reason to go back some day, right?

Travel Tip 5: THROW OUT ALL YOUR TRASH AT EVERY REST STOP! And remember: that which you buy, yes even that deliciously chocolatey Parm bar, you will have to trash later.

Nagoya is the center of technological advances, Japan’s Silicon Valley but specifically in robotics. However, we didn’t have much time to explore at this point. Kim had a plane to catch early the next morning and we still had to find a suitable place to ditch the car in Yokohama (wherein there was yet another Pokemon Center that needed to be crossed off the list).

But after a lovely breakfast as Denny’s, we hit the city mall for clothes shopping and the last Pokemon Center.

Travel Tip 6: Pack for an appropriate number of days. Otherwise you’ll be living out of collectible prefecture T-shirts.

Nagoya reminded me of a less crowded and slightly shinier version of Tokyo. Reminded myself to try living there sometime in the future if possible.

Something must be said about Michi no Eko on the East Side of Honshu though. Where on the Sea of Japan side they’re few and far between, not to mention run down, the Pacific side has some amazing rest stops. Food courts, Starbucks, more gas stations… in short a luxury compared to driving on the west side.

DAY 7: Haneda Airport and Aomori Bound

Dropped Kim off at the airport early in the morning and stayed with her until she went through customs.

Travel Tip 7: Ignore Siri once you’re sure you’re on the highway Tohoku-bound/back to wherever you’re going. She attempted to be helpful by rerouting us through Tokyo. It took us THREE HOURS to find our way though traffic and back on the toll.

In case you missed it from Travel Tip 7, this is where the nightmares began. Not only did Siri seem to think driving on the mean streets of Tokyo would mean a faster exit from the city (I assure you, it was quite the contrary), she also somehow had the bright idea that driving straight through Fukushima’s SEASIDE was somehow okay.

For those of you who do not recall, Fukushima Prefecture’s coast was the site of the failed nuclear reactor. So at this point Elena and I had to create our own custom route, constantly looking ahead to make sure that Siri would not derail us from our path.

It’s an eerie experience driving in the dead of night through a prefecture that’s been the sight of a disaster. There were few lights in the towns and cities. We even cut the air conditioning early to make sure we didn’t breath any of the outside air, a precaution we took because of genetic predispositions to cancer and an unwillingness to tempt fate. Once we were past the line separating Fukushima from Miyagi, we resumed our air conditioning and relaxed.

By the time we rolled up to the hills of Gonohe, it was dawn. We watched the sun break it’s watery red glow across the horizon at the local park and then crashed from the physical and mental exhaustion for a good couple of hours.

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. 

   
    
   

The Final Road Trip (with Kim as co-pilot)

From the beloved Gonohe in Aomori to the tip of Kagoshima Prefecture. A projected 25 hour ride along the west coast according to the ever reliable demon oracle Siri, with two friends who made this year the adventure of a lifetime, and you can bet we will be hitting up every last Pokemon center on the way down and on the way up.

Okay, so it won’t be the last road trip I take, but it will be the last with dearest Kim as co-pilot. All good things must come to an end…

thefinalroadtrip

A lovely picture up above, just so everyone can appreciate that this summer may spell out certain doom. Yes, I understand that Kyushu is the single most miserable place on Earth during the summer but the challenge is there, it’s so very much temptingly there… Wanderlust comrades, unite! In reality, we may only get as far as Fukuoka. My boss, in his youth, fondly recalled setting out one day for adventure as he put it… which ended in Hiroshima, but he applauded my recklessness by adding an ever encouraging がんばるべ. Not sure if I shall rent out a car to make driver switching less of a hassle or if taking Suzu-chan for the memories would be, well, more memorable. All 4,000 km.

Which leads me to the Prefecture Bucket List of many a month ago. Considering the length of this road trip, I would be heading towards un-chartered territory (both in methods of long distance travelling and locations). Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Hyogo, Tottori, and Shimane would be completely new destinations, with Hiroshima/Kyoto/Miyajima being blasts from the past going on round two.

Although, this also serves as scoping out the lay of the land for when Mumsie finally makes her first trans-Pacific flight during summer 2016.

And that concludes the insanity quota for the day, folks.

Day Four: The Last Night

I cried at the reunion. Three times. I hadn’t seen them in nearly three years and the bittersweet memory of having once been so close brought me to a surprising conclusion. I’m not quite sure what ramifications it will have on my future, but I can already feel the impetus, the drive, and although I’m just a tiny bit scared… I won’t be holding myself back anymore.

Day One: Down Memory Lane

It’s taken me two years to return to Japan and not as a student this past summer but as a language assistant. The nostalgia of having been in Tokyo runs deeply, yet there are still so many places, so many things I wasn’t able to finish the first time around. Although I’m not a city girl, Tokyo was my first real home away from home. I suspect it’ll always hold a special place in my heart if only for that reason alone.

Let me say that night bus is not a method that I recommend, unless you’re quite strapped for cash. Guilty as charged. An eight hour drive isn’t too bad of it is just continuous driving. However, eight hours of continuous stops, people boarding and getting off… Well, it takes a toll on your sleep cycle. By the time we finally arrived at the West Shinjuku Bus Terminal, it was 6:30am and checkin at the hostel didn’t start until 4:00pm. What’s a girl to do in a city where she no longer has a home?

Well ,you could do the honorable thing, wait for Starbucks to open, and pay up the yen for overpriced coffee and an old fashioned doughnut in order to use the free WiFi…

…or you could hang out at the alma mater and haunt the empty floors like a pro. Because, you know,  that’s not creepy at all.

Retracing the old university paths of two – now swiftly going on three – years ago, the whole experience felt slightly surreal. Everyone was competing for attention, handing fliers for their clubs, and generally exuding the excitement that all undergrads feel about club week and starting university for the first time. I felt so out of place, not young enough to be an undergrad and yet only just recently matriculated…

Shakaijin. It’s Japanese for an employed adult working full time hours. And that was me. Sigh. I looked into the mirror in one of the bathrooms while I attempted to freshen up for a meeting with a former professor who would be retiring from the university soon. There were dark circles beneath my eyes, some wrinkles, and extra weight gained… I definitely did not feel 23 in that moment.  I felt like an obasan stuck in a nostalgic cycle, in denial of her own age and life choices. Now a week later with a couple of full nights’ sleep in, I realize that I looked exactly how I should have looked: like a woman who had slept on a bus for 8 hours. The movies lie!!!

Lunch was, of course, at the one and only: Tariya Curry. Located a couple steps away from the SILS building, this restaurant packs a punch for its low student prices. This was the place where I tried curry for the first time and I made it my good-bye breakfast three years ago. Also it was my welcome dinner when I arrived in Tokyo for JET. I suspect Tariya will be my good-bye dinner when I leave Japan again. Some traditions, they’re just unbreakable and delicious. They have two new sets: Basil Nan and Gorgonzola Cheese Nan… Why are you so far away Tariya?! T.T

And what’s a reunion party without karaoke? 😉

Anyhow that concluded our first day back in Tokyo. The next couple of days were intense and we hit the ground running early but those are stories for another day.

Reunited…

…and it feels so good! University days aside, Kouchan and I have had three years of texting, Skyping, and planned road trips (that were never executed). And then she did the amazing: she air-tripped it to Aomori to see Michele and me. I’m so glad that through the good times, the bad times, and in-between times we can pick up exactly where we left off.

And it wouldn’t be a true Aomori experience without a trip down to Towada Lake. In the middle of a hail storm. Good times!

Cinnamon Tea and The Great Snow Writing Challenge

Image Source: Wallpapers AM

Image Source: Wallpapers AM

INGREDIENTS:

2-3 sticks of cinnamon

Pot full of water

1-2 cups of ice cold water

Loving friends

Optional: yuzu or lemon; honey

DIRECTIONS:

1. Fill a pot with water and add 2-3 sticks of cinnamon. Do not cover. Turn on heat to medium high.

2. Bring water to boil. Water should have a bit of foam as it rises to the top of the pot. Add 1-2 cups of ice cold water and lower temperature to medium. Allow contents to brew until water begins to boil again. Shut off heat right away. Serve cinnamon tea with lemon or yuzu and a teaspoon of honey.

3. Drink with loving friends who were kind enough to stay with you through the worst and best parts of your sickness ❤

 I’ve been catching colds on and off since October but this past weekend I had a cold that hit me harder than the others. I was achy, my head hurt, my throat didn’t feel that great either, and my nose was running like a fountain. Lots of love to the friends who helped me get over the worst of my first really bad cold, for running out to the super market to get me some groceries, for keeping me company, and letting me veg on episodes of Angel.

Thank you!!!!

😀

The great snow writing challenge of 2014: write a short story that takes place in the snow!

Snow being in abundance in this ken (prefecture), the travelling guild of writers decided to create a special snow writing challenge for the month of December. A couple other caveats that we considered: a scene with a romantic overture, development of a pre-existing character or world, dangerous things that could happen in the snow…

Ultimately the main challenge is to write a story in and around snow but best of luck with writing and any other imaginative add-ons you can think of for a delightful winter story!

Imabetsu, Aomori Prefecture

I can’t imagine a world without good friends, good adventures, and good old fashioned noveling. Our adventures throughout Aomori Prefecture, as the guild of traveling writers, continued this past weekend from the rice fields of Gonohemachi to the furthest reaches of the unknown (also known as, Imabetsu).

NaNoWriMo this year has most definitely been more productive with our little project, taking us to some of the most beautiful and inspirational places on this side of Honshu. For anyone interested in taking a new approach to NaNoWriMo, the premise is quite simple and easily adaptable: first, you take your closest fellow writer friends; second, pick a place to visit (someone else’s home town, that new cafe you’ve been meaning to check out, the beach, etc.); third, take your notebooks/laptops/typewriters/insert-creative-mechanism-of-choice and just go! Road trip, write, bounce ideas off each other, and repeat 😉

At the moment, Imabetsu is accessible by car and train but the shink is coming and signs all over this seaside village are excitedly proclaiming that in as little as a year, Imabetsu will be put on the map once again!

Akita Road Trip 2014

Three day weekend. Good company. An open road. It’s road trip time!

Life is like a Kei car going up a windy mountain road: loud and full throttle 😀 The prelude of our first (of what we are sure will be many more) three-day-weekend road trips began with an excursion to Hirosaki, the castle town of Aomori Prefecture. In these parts it’s a time of apples and harvesting, so the Ringo Kouen (Apple Park) we visited was ripe for the picking. It’s approximately 200 yen for every kilo you pick and the time limit is fifteen minutes. Guides give tours of the land, explain local farming techniques, teach the proper way to test apples for ripeness and instruct in the correct methods for picking apples. Apples are absolutely my most favorite fruit in the world so when it came time for mine to be weighed, an astounding four kilos in fifteen minutes seemed to break the gaijin picking record 😉

 

Akita Prefecture is known for two things: Namahage (evil demons who come to terrorize and steal your children) and bijin (beautiful people, particularly women). There are also no apple flavored drinks, jams, or themed foods anywhere. That is sadly how we knew we were no longer in Aomori. Otherwise it looks much like the rest of Tohoku, windy mountain roads and the most beautiful trees I have ever seen in my life. Though the rest of Japan might feel that Aomori is the backwoods and full of country bumpkins, there are surprisingly more adventurous and kind people in these parts than anywhere else that I have seen. A woman working at the Namahage Museum told us many interesting stories about how her husband was a farming activist who lived out of his car and traveled all around the country to test water and soil levels for pollution. Most of my adult night class students have also traveled abroad a minimum of six to ten different times for farming conventions or have generally seen more of the world than the average city slicker (which is what they call city folk). There’s just something about Tohoku that’s off beat and refreshing. I recommend any traveler looking to get a real taste of Japan to go into the backwoods to see how real people live and celebrate life. Akita and Aomori so far have not disappointed and I look forward to travelling to each and every prefecture before my time is up in Japan.

We finished our day excursion to Akita with a relaxing out door onsen, watching the moon rise above the trees. Onsen (for those unfamiliar with the concept) is a communal outdoor or indoor bath and it is often times translated as bathing in a hot spring. While ours certainly mimicked the natural environment in which a hot spring would be found, it was by no means natural.

To get to Akita from Aomori, it is a three hour drive, round trip six, and requires at least one gas tank refill in a kei car. If travelling with a group of friends cost of the trip is cheaper because it’s broken down among four or five people. Generally you’re looking at this for a cost analysis break down: ~3,000 yen for gas (one 18L tank); ~2,000 yen for toll roads (or free if you don’t mind driving four hours on a non-toll road); ~1,000 yen for dinner at a restaurant (half that price for convenience store food); ~700 to 1,000 yen for onsen. The trip is easily going to cost 10,000 to 20,000 depending on your personal spending habits though as omiyage (souvenirs) can be upwards of 2,000 yen for everyone in your office.

A Rut in the Road

7-Road-signBW-sm

I know I was supposed to have published at least two interview articles on education by now but I hit another rut in the road after the JET Program orientation on June 21 :/ Usually, I’m a go-getter, always-do-your-best-to-get-things-done kind of a girl. But some days, if the best you can do to keep your head above water is treading in the water for a bit longer than normal, then keep doggie paddling till you reach the pebbly shore is what I say! \O/

So, I’m doggie paddling for the time being 😀

This move is really taking the energy out of me. And it’s not just the packing, waiting, and visa paperwork (which was finally submitted on Saturday) – the things you would normally think of as being the main reason for stress. It’s mostly psychological. Saying good-bye to everyone feels so much harder this time around than it was back in 2011. I guess it doesn’t get easier. You just get better at it. More efficient, if that’s even the correct word to use, but never, ever easier. Making time to give everyone quality interactions also takes a big chunk of most weeks but it’s not a burden if I can see them smile and listen to all the things they want to tell me, that are important to them. What drains my energy isn’t the time it takes to see everyone off, in fact I wish I had more time with each person, but all the emotions involved with each interaction. I’m sitting there feeling torn for being so happy and yet so sad at the same time. Happy because I get this much more time with them, also because I’m embarking on an amazing journey to an amazing new place in Japan… but sad because it’s one day less and one person less checked off of my list of good-byes. And then there are the people you know you’re saying good-bye to for… forever. And those are the hardest. They won’t be there the next time I come back to the States. But I try to keep as upbeat and lighthearted as I can, which sometimes isn’t enough for some people, but what can you do? Change your whole inner being to please a few? I’ve tried doing that my whole life and it just doesn’t work but that’s a whole different story that everyone’s lived through before anyway so it needs no telling 😉

Even my dogs have started realizing something’s up and happening soon: they split their sleep cycles (half the night in my bed and the other half with my parents) to keep me company, when I come home after a long day out they’re extra excited and wriggling with even more enthusiasm than normal, and in general they look out for me more as if I’m their puppy.

I’ve made the decision to stay for two years in Aomori should my contracting organization decide to allow me to renew for a second term. The maximum, I’m not too sure yet… but I’m thinking three to four years would not be too bad. Five is the absolute program maximum. My predecessor was the first person to complete the full contract and I look forward to seeing how much time I can spend in Gonohemachi before figuring out the next phase of my life. It’s all toddler steps here. Because so many things have happened in the past six months alone (almost as if a lifetime has gone by and I’m not about to rush) such that I’m not going to presume what should happen next until I’ve thought it all out clearly.

To be a writer is to be like a god, creating worlds and scenarios out of careful observation, rumination, and twists of imagination. And to be alive is to be the writer of your own story. Never underestimate the power of choice, even the smallest one can reverberate decades into the future. So I’ll be making my choices creatively and imaginatively through much careful observation. In any case, this blog will definitely see many adventures. so many more than the last one that I’m excited either way.