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.

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 Three: Disney Sea

 

Photo taken courtesy of Micchan (https://shopaholicinjapan.wordpress.com/)

 

Although I’m not a Disney otaku (not by a long shot), I don’t mind excursions to theme parks every once in a great while and I’ve been to several Disneylands and Disneyworlds but Disney Sea is the one that caused me the most concern. For starters it’s built right on the ocean (the inner geologist in me convulsed) yet it’s so artistically put together and picturesque that it’s hard not to enjoy the beauty of the park. Mind, I didn’t have time to really explore (wait lines take up to four hours depending on the popularity of the ride) so I’ll have to go back just to visit the Aladdin themed section of the park.

Being the classy, working ladies that we are, we booked a fancy lunch. Well worth the money, only wish there had been more food! Pear compote recipes, I will master you yet…

My favorite part of Disney Sea? Location. As much as I freaked out internally about the location itself, for ecological and geological reasons, I caved in to my willful ignorance and stopped thinking about it around twenty minutes in to our visit. Also the popcorn hunt was fun (but those can be found at Tokyo Disneyland as well).

Least favorite part? All the people. Never mind social anxiety and introversion, there were just too many people for such a small park – go figure, it was Spring Break – and wait lines for the popular lines went anywhere from an hour and a half to four hours. We were waiting in line at Indiana Jones for at least two hours when they finally turned us away… the ride broke down or something.

Prices have been hiking in recent years but are still cheaper than SoCal and Florida, especially now that the dollar is finally stronger than the yen so take advantage while you still can!

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.

An Exercise In Not Lying To Myself And Not Editing

Heading off to Tokyo in a couple of hours via night bus – the sudden realization that I’ve become less and less prepared for trips the older I get. Last minute clothes shoved into a backpack, barely remembering to keep passport in hand, and perhaps the keys are in my coat pocket; somehow this feels more like living than before, irresponsible but alive… Question mark.

Lately, I have no desire to continue scheduling my life into hour-long slots any more. Being continuously trapped within four walls will do that to you, I guess. Or maybe this listlessness is a new development in nervousness. Big changes came last week in our district for our educational system, in addition to word on the street being that a new JET will be hired in Gonohe. Excitement. New things. Horizons expanding. Worlds colliding. Exclamation mark.

Sometimes people are so alive, it’s easy to forget that we’re all here on borrowed time. I think, maybe, it’s all just starting to settle into place. I think less about America as the country to which I will eventually return and more as the country from which I came. But I don’t know where I’m going next. When I first arrived I didn’t seriously consider that I would stay abroad forever. This was always supposed to be A Temporary Thing. I expect this opinion to change in three seconds/ day/weeks/months/years. Humanity is a beautiful complication, I’m not even going to pretend to understand half of what I’ve just written but the coffee was particularly strong this morning and the Word Document conveniently opened. Semi-colon.

lepetitprince

 

The Prefectures Bucket List

japaneseprefectures

I’m on a mission to visit every one of Japan’s 47 prefectures and its main islands. I have three years to complete my goal. I’m here already so I may as well make the most of my stay as a contributing-to-society adult with no permanent ties or responsibilities (apart from work, of course). It’s finally occurred to me that keeping track of where I’ve been and what I’ve done is of strategic, statistical, and demographic importance (silly me).

.:PREFECTURES VISITED:.

Hokkaido (Sapporo/Otaru, February 2015)

Miyagi (Sendai, December 2014)

Akita (Oga Peninsula, October 2014)

Aomori (August 2014-present)**

Tokyo (Tokyo City, September 2011 – July 2012 & July 2014)*

Kanagawa (Hakone, May 2012)

Kyoto (Kyoto City, March-April 2012)

Nara (Nara City, March-April 2012)

Hiroshima (Hiroshima City/Miyajima, March-April 2012)

Okinawa (February 2012)

Yamagata (Yamagata City, February 2012)

Okayama (New Year’s 2012)

Chiba (Disneyland, December 2011)

Tochigi (Nikkou, November 2011)

Nagano (Matsumoto Castle, September 2011)

😀

NEXT TRAVEL PLANS ON THE LIST

Aomori’s Greatest Hits and the Great Tokyo Escape (Kouchan visits Tohoku + Reunion with Waseda friends in Tokyo)

The Tohoku Triangle: Aomori-Akita-Iwate (Golden Week with the girls)

Osaka (sometime, maybe soon, maybe in another year)

Legend: (*) – lived and studied there; (**) – lived and worked there

Home-made Strawberry Jam + Time Machine Archives

strawberryjam

Hiking in the morning, making jam in the afternoon, and reading heavy fiction in the evening are some nice alternatives for the people who aren’t too beach crazy. The only way to enjoy summer properly is to partake of all its joys, my dear Californians, and yes there is a world outside of our warm, sandy beaches. Fortunately this is also the time of the year that locally grown fruit makes a comeback: lower in price and oh so ripe. The best way to preserve their full flavor and freshness? In jams! 😀

So this recipe is pretty adaptable for the most part, which is great for people who want to cut back on the sugar. My friend Diana is the greatest at coming up with cooking challenges for us to try but this one topped the cake. Not only was it fairly simple and less stressful than some of our other concoctions (pasta sauce… ahaha o.o) but it’s so much fun! Just the idea of making jam instead of having to buy it – makes one feel self suffient! It’s a family friendly recipe that’s a win-win for everyone. I look forward to seeing what else she’ll come up with next 😉

.:INGREDIENTS:.

  • 2 lbs organic strawberries
  • ~1 c water
  • 1.5 c sugar (white, brown, raw)
  • 1 lemon, squeezed

::DIRECTIONS::

  1. Wash, de-stem, and cut all of the strawberries in half. And, of course, eat a couple of them along the way >.> But not all!
  2. Blend strawberries and water until completely liquefied.
  3. Pour the liquefied strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice into a saucepan and stir sugar until completely dissolved.
  4. Boil this mixture for 30-45 minutes and stir occasionally to keep jam from burning. Make sure to skim the thick, white foam that accumulates, which although tasty is not good for the jam. You’ll know it’s ready once it turns a bright and deep red.
  5. Ladle into properly sterilized mason jars (do not touch inside of the jar) but do not fill to the brim. Carefully seal mason jar and place lid down onto a towel on a flat surface, which will help the jam to seal properly. Once cooled place the mason jars into the refrigerator so that jam can properly congeal 😉

breakfast

Even so this jam will be a little runnier than the kind you buy at the supermarket because there are no artificial additives. But it holds up well and tastes amazing. The amount of sugar listed in this recipe is just right for those who like a tart sweetness. Two cups of sugar (but no more) recommended for people with a really sweet tooth. All in all it’s a pretty adaptable recipe. Enjoy!

And now for some time machine archives from the old blog – those of you who would like access just drop me a line using the contact page: strawberry picking, otherwise known as いちごかり (ichigokari) in Japanese, is a great day trip to take if you live in the city and want to get out for a couple of hours.

ichigokari2 ichigokari ichigokari3 ichigokari_strawberriesichigokari_ella ichigokari_audrey

For about 1,000 yen (approximately $10.00) you can pick and eat as many strawberries as you want in the hothouses for a set amount of time. Most places do anywhere upwards of an hour and a half to two and a half hours of wonderful berry picking and eating.

Adapting to a Foreign Country

Oh my. You’re in for quite a ride… and the best part: there is nothing you can do to prepare before hand. When a person makes the commitment to live and work/study in a foreign country for the long-term things can get a little crazy.

Here is the break down of the four stages of adapting to a foreign country:

Honeymoon Stage

Culture Shock Stage

recoverystage

Recovery Stage

Adaptation Stage

These four well-known stages also closely resemble the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”. Why? I have no idea but the part that is hardest to get through is the culture shock/recovery stage transition which I would associate as rough equivalents with stages 1 and 3-6 of the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”.

Unlike the previous post, which I tried to keep light-hearted and humorous, I will go into a little more detail here on the positive and negative effects of adapting WELL or BADLY to a foreign country. I will use Japan as an example because that’s the topsy-turvy world I had to adapt to within a year for my study abroad experience in Tokyo for the 2011 to 2012 school year.

What I noticed happened to a lot of us as soon as we hit the end of the “Honeymoon Stage” is that we would begin to sink into a form of “WHY JAPAN, WHY?!” attitude anytime something absolutely shocked us – age of consent for sex (13 years old for females compared to 18 for males nationwide with each region having the right to choose any age between 13-20), extremely broad police powers, gender roles, weird pornography laws on what Japanese considered ‘acceptable’ and what not, etc. However, no matter how many times you ask yourself this… fact of the matter remains that there is nothing you can do to change it. Culture is culture and the sooner you accept certain norms as just that, norms, the sooner you can break away from the infinite loop of shock.

Because Japan is primarily (98%) Japanese and even Tokyo has relatively few foreigners compared to other countries’ capitals, any and all foreigners in Japan will be stared at wherever they go. It’s highly uncomfortable and annoying to the extreme. There would be days where I’m sure more than a few of us wanted to shout, “Why are you looking at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head?!” Another example on adapting well to a culture is that we would solve this problem by giving them a BIG SMILE. Traditionally, although looking anyone straight in the eyes is considered rude in Japan so if you find yourself in a situation where constant staring is making you uncomfortable just give them a steady gaze AND add a nice smile. It gets the point across without being ‘direct’ about what you want them to stop doing and it’s positive reinforcement that foreigners are not scary.

Here are some other things you can do (that I tried out) in order to help facilitate the whole ordeal of staying abroad long term:

1. Keep up a routine. Mine went straight out the window as I tried to adapt to a whole new style of living with my first host family and I quickly discovered just how dangerous that can be to your mental and physical health. I went six months without having any set goals to accomplish (like I had back home) and these were often times very simple little things for me such as playing with the dogs, starting/finishing an art/writing project, researching something within my major, reading, etc.

Whether you’re in the dorms, your own apartment, or in a host family, first set up some ground rules for yourself: the most important of which will be to not put yourself second or third. Your well-being is your first priority and if that means spending an entire day raiding the arts and craft shops in the Tokyu Hands building in Shinjuku then so be it. Just make sure you’re responsible about it and know when to put other situations above your immediate (not overall though) needs.

2. Eat your favorite foods. Okay so you’re on a tight budget and you’ve been rationing out the lunch money pretty carefully but one day you will pass by the super market window and it’s going to be there in all its glory: a dinky little 12 oz bin of extra chunky peanut butter. So long as you don’t go out of budget every single day it isn’t bad to treat yourself once a semester to something you really, really enjoyed back home but can’t have now because of the expense. I remember my first peanut butter and banana sandwich that I allowed myself to finally have back in December… I cried tears of joy… even though I used to hate bananas like they were the plague because I had to eat them all the time as a teenager (prone to leg cramps + member of swim team = fail)

3. Watch TV from your home country. No seriously. You’re already watching television shows from your host country. You’re also listening to their music, getting pummeled day past day with their entertainment media, advertisements, etc. and in the process you are losing touch with what’s going on in the other side of the world. One episode a night just before I went to bed is the route I took on the nights I wasn’t busy piecing together some essay or research project. Which is a big step for me if you know me at all (I do not watch TV or movies all that often).

I remember having skype sessions with my family and they would be talking about “so-and-so” movie just came out, “this-and-that” television show, “Senator Blah-Blah-Blah-Blarg-Blarg got re-elected” and I felt like a tiny little island in a wasteland of AKB48 and Prime Minsterialships gone wrong, unable to relate to anything my own family was talking about at all and vice-versa on their end as well.

4. And finally make lots of friends within your host and home culture. They’re the ones who will be able to best explain the new culture and will facilitate your transition while those from your home culture will keep your sanity grounded when it all becomes too much culture shock. They’ll also be going through similar experiences and often times sharing those with another person can make the experience that much more positive rather than negative because there will be lots of comedy involved.