***Part of my delay with getting these blogs updated is that I’m technologically inept when it comes to this site I am using! Sorry about the pictures…they are all mixed up and kinda all over the place, but hopefully you can still enjoy. I’ll get better, I promise 🙂
Brrrr! As I pedaled home tonight in the pouring rain having forgotten my rain jacket, for the first time since I arrived in Japan, I was cold….and it was FABULOUS! The heavy humidity and the daily deluge of sweat constantly gushing from my pores was enough to turn me into a hot, sweaty monstrous biatch. I have never welcomed the turning of the season as much as I am right now. The mornings and evenings have a cool crisp to the air, but the afternoon sunlight warms everything up enough to be “just right”. There is some subtle evidence in the foliage as a few leaves are just starting to turn; the rest will follow suit soon. Many people have told me that the fall season lasts for quite a while here and that the real cold doesn’t hit until we return from Christmas holiday. This is great because it allows me a couple more months to explore and actually experience a season change…it’s been seven years for me!
It’s been a long time since I have written and I have many adventures to share; some close to home and others a decent trek away. I’ll share as much as I can, but others may have to wait until next time. I know, I know…if I updated more often then I wouldn’t have so much to share. Stop lecturing me! J
This is a lovely hiking area about 2 hours directly west from where I am. Of course it took me about 2.5 hours because I hopped on the slow train instead of the rapid. I still haven’t quite figured that all out yet. I’m lucky enough if I get on the train going in the right direction. The morning somehow flew right by and I didn’t actually leave my place until noon; like that’s a surprise, right? As I mentioned in my last blog, this was my first real outing on my own. I have to admit that I was quite nervous; especially after two hours on the train and then second-guessing if I was on the right one! Others who had hiked Mt. Mitake before had told me to just follow all the people (Japanese really enjoy hiking and nature), but since I had such a late start the train was rather empty. The scenery on the train was beautiful. My first glimpse of Japan’s undeveloped nature and it was nothing short of breathtaking. The mountains are covered in deep green forest and they are massive and expansive. This is the Japan that everyone raves about and I started to feel giddy about exploring and simply getting out of the congestion that is Tokyo. Seeing the untouched mountainsides also made me understand why the people here value nature so much; not only is it beautiful, but you can escape your busy life in just a couple of hours and feel like you are in a completely different world.
Getting to the mountain posed some challenges, as I had to catch a bus and then a cable car to get to the start of the hiking trail. Well, let me be honest; I could have skipped the cable car and hiked my way up, but I didn’t want to. The bus was easy to find and so was the cable car. The cable car literally went straight up and I couldn’t have been happier with my decision to take it rather than climb the steep first leg of the mountain. As soon as you reach the top, you are immediately swept away by the views. The sprawl of mountains and valleys continued as far as the eye could see. If it didn’t take so long to get to it would be my place to escape from it all on a regular basis.
The hike itself was not very strenuous and since I started from the top my trek was mostly downhill. The colors were so vibrant…the greens literally looked as if they were glowing. I wish the pictures could show this. I reached the Rock Garden, which is simply an open area with a stream and rocks of all shapes and sizes; most covered in moss. Because of the dense foliage, the overall light seemed dim, but was illuminated by the fluorescent green tones of the moss. I knew it was getting late and I would lose all light pretty soon, but I was determined to make it to the waterfall. I could hear it and knew it couldn’t be too far, but every time I came around a bend it wasn’t there. I finally decided to turn around. At this point I wasn’t sure how long I had been hiking and since my return trip would be uphill I figured it would take a bit longer than coming down. I have never booked it so fast in my life. Sweat dripped from my face and my quads were on fire, but I had to get out of there before the sun went down.
I made it to the shrine before it became dark and luckily for me the rest of the trail to the cable car was lit so I could finally relax. On the way back home I was tired, sweaty (probably stunk too) and my stomach was yelling at me, but all I could think about was how excited I was that I finally trekked out on my own. I did it! I didn’t get lost and I finally got to see the beautiful side of Japan. The experience was empowering and I was now equipped with the knowledge that I can do this. I can make a life for myself here and truly enjoy it. Yay!
My second trip my own was quite a bit further away and a very different experience. Early in October, we had a four-day weekend (Fall break). Many people were heading to faraway places like Seoul or Okinawa, but I wanted to travel in Japan; get out of my neighborhood for once. I thought about just exploring downtown, but I know myself well enough to know that I probably wouldn’t get out of bed early enough and end up dinking around until the afternoon and by that time would just tell myself to try again tomorrow; yet I would do the same thing for the entire four days. Pathetic, I know. A few people had recommended this little mountain town and lucky for me there would be a festival there at the time I would be there! I booked a room at the only hotel with availability and wistfully awaited a new adventure.
The total travel time took over 6 hours from my door to y hotel room. From Tokyo Station I hopped on the Shinkansen AKA: bullet train! Oh yeah-this train is AWESOME! The ride is so smooth you can’t even tell that you are going as fast as 185 mph…that’s crazy! The ticket was about $100 each way so it isn’t cheap, but well worth the time you save.
Many people get a Bento box (Japanese lunch box) at the station, but if you don’t have time or forget, there is no need to worry. A lovely lady pushes a cart filled with food and drink for those that didn’t bring their lunch with them. The shinkansen stopped in a city called Nagoya, an industrial town that looked like a pretty good size from the train station. Here I needed to change trains for the last (and longest) leg of my trip. After the shinkansen, this train seemed incredibly slow and seemed to stop every 10 minutes. However, the views through the mountains were ‘gorge’-ous ( I can’t claim that one because I read it in my Lonely Planet book). Check out the pictures; it was quite amazing.
The hotel was slightly out of town and I ended up taking a taxi instead of waiting the 40 minutes for the next shuttle (I am not my mother’s daughter!). The hotel was beautiful. The ornately decorated lobby was a tell-tell sign of the type hotel it was and I was definitely living above my means staying here, but oh well, right? I stopped at the vending machine on the way up to my room and got a couple of Asahi’s (beers). Oh yeah…I know how to live it up in style. The room was fantastic; bigger than my apartment with a glorious view of the distant town and mountains. I needed to eat so I ventured out to where the restaurants were. My dinner choices were $100 sushi dinner or $70 steak dinner. Hmmm…I was bummed because it was already late and I had no idea where to grab a bite in town so I opted for the cheaper version. The food was fine (not $70 worth) and as I ate I realized that this was really the first time I ate in a restaurant by myself. I’m not sure how I felt about it. It was lonely and quiet, but enjoyable.
Now for the real challenging part of my evening; the onsen. These baths are such a traditional aspect of Japan’s culture and I HAD to try it. I tried to find out if there was a pamphlet or some other type of instructions for the onsen. Of course communication was an issue so I just told the young gal that I’d come back. We both nodded and smiled not having any idea what the other was talking about….story of my life these days. I stopped at the front desk and again tried to ask for directions. This time I was successful! The pamphlet I was given was quite hilarious with cartoonish pictures and a step-by-step explanation of what to do. I was actually quite nervous about my new ink because many establishments see this as a sign of being affiliated with the major Japanese gang; the Yakuza, and do not allow entry. Oh well, all they can do is ask me to leave, right? Hopefully I understand them when they do! I threw on my yukata (Japanese summer robe), my slippers and headed to the onsen. This particular onsen is separated by gender. The women’s pools were on the 7th floor. Upon entering the changing area, I sat and watched for a few minutes, just to make sure I was going to do everything right. I started to feel a little strange sitting in my robe watching all the naked Japanese women get ready for their bath…haha! I quickly undressed, grabbed my 6 inch square towel (seriously) and went to the cleansing area. The showers were traditional Japanese where you sit on a stool and use a hosed showerhead to clean. It is important to clean yourself extremely well as the onsen are natural water sources. There are no stalls or curtains at this point so you are sitting naked on a stool in a large room with many other women doing the same. I can’t say it didn’t feel a bit awkward. After cleansing I stepped out into the night air trying to cover myself as much as possible with my teeny tiny towel (basically a hand towel) and was taken aback by what I saw. There were several pools all with steam wafting from the surface of the water. The three main pools were made of stone and had mini waterfalls creating the tranquil sound of rushing water. There were several individual baths and a couple that looked like old wine barrels. I chose the first pool simply to submerge my nakedness as quickly as possible. The water was perfect and I instantly relaxed. To many Americans, this idea of walking around naked scares the shit out of us as we are not an open culture when it comes to nudity. Surprisingly enough, Japanese are very comfortable with being naked despite that they are a very modest people in every other aspect. The tradition of onsen dates back to ancient times and the Japanese view them as a good tradeoff for having to deal with earthquakes (onsen are created by the earthquakes). The pools are different temperatures and it is customary to hop from pool to pool. My favorite pool was the infinity pool overlooking the mountains. As I soaked in the water overlooking the distant silhouettes of the mountain peeks I think I realized this was maybe the first time since my arrival in Japan that I truly felt at peace.
Takayama is a beautiful little town that has a mix of new and traditional Japanese architecture. Most of my time was spent just walking and watching. I loved the older part of the town because it really had a traditional Japanese ambience. The narrow streets and original architecture made me feel as if I were on the set of The Last Samurai. It still had running water in the deep gutters that lined the streets that I’m assuming once served as the sewage system. I enjoyed walking in and out of the stores which all contained pretty much the same things. Rice cakes are a hot item in Takayama (all over Japan actually) and many stores had samples out which I was very grateful for since I cannot read any of the labeling.
It was here, in the old part of town, where my frustration with the language barrier started to get the better of me. Day 1 was great because it felt liberating to not have to talk to anyone. I walked and walked and felt invisible the entire time. Tuning out the chattering became easy as none of it was understandable anyway. Often I would sit and just people watch for a while. However, by Day 2 the inaccessibility definitely got the better of me. For three entire days I barely spoke to anyone, but not by choice. I would have loved to ask the little old lady what the weird pink shit she was selling at the farmer’s market was or if the yakitori I bought was the famous Hida beef like I thought because it sure as hell didn’t taste like beef. I would have truly enjoyed asking the sweet man at the noodle shop about the upcoming festival and instead spent the entire time it took me to eat my dinner memorizing how to say “delicious!” ( it’s oishii). But I couldn’t. So I continued walking and watching in silence, making up my own answers to my many questions.
It took this trip for me to realize how isolating not knowing the language really is. In my world of work and the people I associate with, it is so easy not to learn the language. We are in this little bubble and some people who have been here for several years never leave that bubble. There are people here who have been here for 10+ years that still cannot speak a lick of Japanese. I do not want that for myself. If anything, my experience in Takayama has given me the motivation to study and learn as much as I can while I am here…however long that may be.
Some of you may have seen some of the pictures I posted on FB of our sixth grade trip to Kiyosato. What a wonderful trip! We stayed in cabins; each teacher with 6-8 students and simply explored nature for 2 ½ days. We went on a hike, milked cows, made butter, created crafts using nature, went on a nature walk and ate the best homemade ice cream in the world. It was a great time for me to get to know so many of the students outside of school and in a setting where they can truly just be themselves without the constrains and stress of the high academics of ASIJ’s curriculum. They played in an open field next to a cow pasture with Mt. Fuji in the distance. It doesn’t really get any better than that!
What was most noticeable to me during this trip was how well behaved these kids really are. Students were required to have an independent reading book with them most of the time and during transitions were asked to read quietly until their next activity began…and they did! At dinner each evening, students were told they could stay and chat with their friends or go back to the main hall and read their books. Can you believe that more than half actually came back to read their books?! The students in my cabin al went to bed when they were supposed to (I did have to warn the girls once) and on the last morning they all chipped in and cleaned! It was such a great trip for the students…and for me!
I’m definitely staying busy. Between work, studying, working out and exploring I find that my evenings and weekends are pretty full. I’m looking forward to a quiet Saturday or Sunday in which I can just veg and relax. Hopefully soon. I’m also looking forward to coming home in December and seeing all the lovely faces of the people I miss so much! Of course, and cuddling with my Rufy-doooooo!
Coming up next…
Going to prison, dancing ban at the gay club, a prince and a watermelon and moving already????
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins