紅葉 – Kouyou

A wildfire of scarlet leaves has spread across Touhoku and the three day weekend offered the perfect opportunity to chase them across the beautiful, scenic landscape. We stayed at free campsites and accessible road stop stations along the way, paying only for toll roads, gas, onsen, and food. Total it cost about $200-300 between the two of us (approximately $150-200 per person for all three days). It’s a cheap and back roads method of travel for the more adventurous, although hotels and hostels are easy to find at each prefecture.

Towada-Hachimantai National Park is the remains of a shield volcano (the kind that forms over millennia of oozing lava) and has many lovely look out posts as you drive up and around it. It borders Aomori and Iwate, making it the perfect bridge between the two prefectures. For the shortest and easiest climb, drive the car to the last rest stop on the mountain and take a lovely hour and a half hike through trees and marshlands. The peak is dotted with curiously named marshes (Megane-numa, for example, is a duet of two very round ponds that supposedly look like glasses when viewed from above). The paths are paved for the most part, rendering proper hiking shoes with grips unnecessary.

You’re going to meet entire families or groups of friends/tourists hiking with you or passing you on their way down. Best thing to do is offer a friendly ‘Hello’ or if you can muster up the courage to do it in Japanese it will make them even happier. Advanced speakers can even through in a good old ‘Otsukare-sama desu’ for good measure; watch their eyes light up and laughter slip from their lips. Most of the time they’re going to want to strike up some conversation, to practice their English, and to ask where you’re from. It can take a couple minutes from your hike but worth the cultural exchange.

Our next stop took us to Mt. Kurikoma, a stratovolcano located between Akita and Yamagata. In its history, the volcano erupted twice, violently leaving two caldera scars as parting gifts for the amateur geologist to marvel over. The climb up and down lasts about three hours, if you have a set of good working knees, and features a gorgeous variety of volcanic activity : sulfur lakes and streams (harnessed by mankind for the popular mineral onsen), steaming fumaroles, fertile flat lands, and basalt deposits. Pro tip: pack Hokkairou (heat patches), check weather reports in advance, and don’t start your hike after 1pm if you have bad knees. We eventually made it out of the mountain with our quick wits and a cell phone flashlight but there were more than a couple times that we thought it would be a close call as the battery levels dropped ever lower and the storm grew from sprinkle to pelting rain to wind lashes and rain combined.

As you can see from the pictures below, there are very few truly bright red/orange trees left. There was a terribly strong wind in the days leading up to our departure. By the time we arrived we were only able to enjoy the remnants of what I’m sure had been a gloriously vibrant kouyou experience only days before. Still, even the burnished gold leaves made for a captivating climb. Also, the photos below were taken with an iPhone camera and no filters. I probably didn’t do the colors justice, but I tried my best!

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.

My New Life…

gonohemachi

…is starting this July ❤ I will be living further north than I have ever lived before and teaching English in a small coastal town called Gonohemachi in Aomori Prefecture on Honshu Island (the main island of Japan). It’s everything I hoped for and wanted: to be so far removed from my previous haunts in Tokyo, a new place to explore, and lots of snow for winter 🙂 And the best part? It’s a stone’s throw from a national park!!! I’m going to be having a blast geologizing my way though rocks, rocks, and more rocks!

And like the geek that I am, my research on this general area will be presented below for anyone who cares to know more about social, historical, and geographical information on the Touhoku region and Aomori Prefecture.

towadako

As previously stated, Aomori Prefecture is located in the northernmost geographical region known as Touhoku in Honshu Island. Due to it’s unique geology (mainly the north-south Ou Mountains, a chain that separate eastern and western halves of the prefecture), the area is known for its natural beauty and it’s climate where temperatures range anywhere from extremes of -7.8 degrees Celsius in the winter to 34.0 degrees Celsius in the summer – or to convert into Fahrenheit that would be anywhere from 17.96 to 93.2 degrees Fahrenheit (APTINET). The median recorded temperature seems to average 10.1 degrees Celsius or 50.18 degrees Fahrenheit (APTINET). It’s ideal for growing apples, yams, and garlic all of which happen to be the region’s main agricultural output (Umai Aomori). Lake Towada itself is a caldera, the crater remains of an active volcano. Pyroclastic flows in the area have shown that the blasts from this caldera have gone as far north as Aomori City at the very tip of the island and its last explosion occured approximately 13,000 years ago (Japan: The Official Guide). Compared to Yellowstone National Park (the whole thing is one gigantic caldera and still active as evidenced by its geysers and natural springs), Towada-ko’s eruption would be dangerous but unimpressive in its magnitude. Although maybe I shouldn’t just yet be saying that because anything lethal enough to kill should be considered impressive.

jomonpottery1jomonpottery2

There seem to be a number of Jomon villages reconstructed from archaeological remains that are open to the public for sightseeing. I’m particularly fond of this time period (lasting roughly from 4,500 BCE to 250 BCE) because it is the earliest Japanese civilizations that can be traced through time and for me the rawer the civilization the more interesting. History and mythology blend. Bone records reveal the facial features of the people to get an idea of what they looked like (quite different from what you would think to be Japanese features) and from their trash and pottery remains we have information on their diet and the aesthetics of the time (Jomon Japan). The meaning of Jomon itself comes from the kanji or Chinese characters for “cord” and “making”, referencing the beautiful rope-like decorations on their flame rimmed pots (Hane, Pg. 10-11).

Although it is decidedly less populous than my previous home in Tokyo (honestly can it get more packed than that gem of a city?), I’m excited to have new hiking trails to discover and to learn the Aomori dialect, which is about as rustic and as country as one can get 😀 Less people, less shoving into trains, and less distractions means more communing with nature, more fresh air, and more adventure. What more could a girl possibly want? ❤ I can’t believe just how lucky I am to be placed in the nation’s main regional producer of apples! Apples! My favorite fruit in the whole wide world. The national park is the gem of the package though. Seriously. I am crying tears of joy. The Jomon villages, too, make for awesome sprinkles on the cupcake. Looks like lady Luck just did me a solid and decided to start going my way for once! 😉

 

Jomon village

Jomon village \O/

 

WORKS CITED

APTINET Aomori Prefectural Government. Aomori Sightseeing Guide, 2010. Web. 15 June 2014.

Hane, Mikiso. “The Early Years: Japanese Pre-History”. Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. Colorado: Westview Press, 1991. Print.

Japan-Guide. Tohoku Travel Guide, 1996. Web. 15 June 2014.

Japan National Tourism Organization. Japan: The Official Guide. Web. 15 June 2014.

Jomon Japan. Jomon Archaelogoical Sites. Web. 15 June 2014.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prehistory: Jomon Culture, 2000. Web. 15 June 2014.

Umai Aomori. Main Agricultural Products of AOMORI, 2005. 16 June 2014.

 

Note: For those of you who viewed this post on 16 June 2014, you may have been experiencing some technical difficulties… aka, me updating the heck out of this post because I had not realized that I’d accidentally set it to publish automatically on this day at midnight. Sorry about that! Really, I am. Here I was clicking update thinking, “This won’t publish until the 18th anyway, let me go in for one more revision!” Alas, will I never learn? Possibly not, I’m a pen and paper kind of gal and technology hisses at me with a vengeance 😉 But the article is completed and ready for viewing. Further revisions (of which there will be none planned, but should the need arise in the event of a major gaffe) will be listed down here along with dates and times. Thanks!

Joshua Tree National Park

joshuatreemap

Named after the area’s signature Yucca brevifoliaJoshua Tree National Park is located about two hours east of Los Angeles and features an abundance of desert wildlife as well as fantastic geology, making it the perfect pit stop for adventurous travelers who don’t mind going off the beaten track.

Rock climbers, photographers, nature enthusiasts, and geology students will have a blast climbing the gigantic granitic monoliths by using the unique erosion patterns that create accessible foot and hand holds across most of these features. It’s quite a work out. Upon reaching their summit, you can see for miles around and take in the beautiful desert landscape/scenery. JTNP might not be as well known as Death Valley National Park or the Mojave Preserve but it’s definitely more accessible, complete with visitor centers and designated parking areas all throughout the area for those who enter it by car.

Bicyclists and hikers get a reduced fee entry 7 day pass for $5 while visitors who come by car pay $15 for a week (or for a flat rate of $30 you can opt for the yearly pass).

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