Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Nigata Ski Trip

I learned this weekend that Nigata is known for many things. 4) Fresh seafood. 3) Pale beauties. 2) Sake. And most importantly: 1) Snow. Lots and lots of snow. When the wind from Siberia blows across the Sea of Japan (also known as the Korean Sea), it picks up a lot of mouisture. When that wind hits Nigata it drops the majority of its mouisture. That cold wind then blows over Mt. Komochi and right into my door. Basically, Nigata has snow. Heaps of it. Thanks to that fact, I found myself in Yuri's car at 5:00am on a Sunday, on our way to Takasaki so that we could meet up with her friends in time to beat the traffic to Nigata.

Yuri and I decided the night before to try to only speak English with her friends so that they would have a chance to practice their English, but sure enough, it just made our meeting a little awkward, as no one spoke any English but Yuri. We gave up just before reaching the longest tunnel in Japan. The way you get from Gunma to Nigata is by passing through an entire mountain range.

So, a quick digression. As you may know, I am a very safe person. I always wear my seat belt, always wear a helmet, and am sure to wear bright colors at night. When most people go skiing or snowboarding, they try to dress in a way that doesn't make them look stupid. I don't.
Japanese snow covered mountains. Very wide runs, I was surprised.
And not that many people.
Here is Yuri snowboarding.
Well, doing her best at least.
Iwappara, the name of the resort, actually had a gondola. Very nice but also hot.
Mr. Safety comes to Japan. Actually, I find that if I take simple precautions, my confidence level goes way up and I am able to try many more new things than I would have otherwise.
A great picture.
The picture I took as I jumped over two snowboarders.
Dinner that night. Nigatta does have some good sea food.
And those are the photos of skiing. So how is skiing in Japan? It is like skiing the easy runs in California, except less crowded. Or maybe just as crowded, but people don't blast by you at 65 miles per hour.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

I Get A New Pet

Remember last week I went to the Maebashi Hatsuichi? Well, I discovered the day after going that Shibukawa also had a Hatsuichi. And that is how it began... one of the coolest weekends ever.

It all started on Friday, as weekends tend to do. I spent half of the day on Friday doing calligraphy with the 4th graders under the supervision of one of the most serious teachers at my school. My interest in Japanese, I have to say, is widening. At first I thought it would be enough just to speak, but then I realized that in modern times the fastest way to learn most things is to read. Then I thought I could get by learning only to read Kanji, and that I need not bother writing it. Well, I have been mistaken again. It turns out that one of the most enjoyable parts of the Japanese language is writing Kanji with a brush and ink. Just like a martial art, you need to be both calm and focused. You must also be knowledgeable and have technique. Obviously, I was not able to get amazing results on my first day of calligraphy, but I was satisfied with the four slogans that I wrote.
Doing calligraphy really put me in a great mood which saw me through the rest of the weekend. One last thing about calligraphy, when I showed my writing to the vice-principal of the school and explained that I was developing an interest in calligraphy, she decided to give me the calligraphy brush that had been left on her desk by a previous vice-principal. I can tell that this brush has a lot of power in it. Maybe the vice-principal doesn't realize it, but whoever used this brush last left their mark on it. It is a very good brush.

Alright, so Friday night came, and Yuri showed up at my place so that we could go to Shibukawa's Hatsuichi. Which was...
really, really small. Yup. We spent probably a total of 4 minutes at the Hatsuichi before we had seen everything and decided not to do anything. After the Hatsuichi we stopped by a restaurant that is best described as "very yellow" and had the largest shrimp tempura that I have ever had.
People say that Japan is expensive. Sure, the cities are expensive, but when you get into the countryside prices get much more reasonable. Sometimes they get absurdly cheap. Especially when it comes to vegetables. Imagine getting 5 pounds of hakusai (Chinese cabbage) for 50 cents. Not uncommon. This shrimp tempura was another example of ridiculously reasonable prices. Shrimp and squid tempura with rice, vegetables and soup for 700 yen. Well, I guess the fact that the establishment was a little less than clean helps to justify that price.
So, as you may or may not know, I have wanted to go to a mushroom factory for quite some time. I love mushrooms and I love factories, so why not combine the two! I expressed my interest to Yuri, and the idea sounded fun to her as well. Thus, on Saturday morning, we set off on a quest to find the Numata Kinokoen (mushroom park). Our first stop was the Komochi Rest Stop, where we bought vegetables from the farmer's market. Next stop was the gaint Tengu mask in the center of downtown Numata.
Well, Yuri is a good driver, loves to try new things, is friendly, curious, and patient. Basically, a really good traveler. However, her sense of direction is not flawless. Combine that with the fact that I, who was supposed to be the navigator, can only sort-of read Japanese maps, and you might conclude that we got lost. We did. However, in the midst of our being lost, we actually found a place that not only had a mushroom factory, but allowed you to pick your own mushrooms!!!!!
Wow!!! Picking your own mushrooms is really a blast! I have to admit, the fungus that the mushrooms sprout from is disgusting, but the process of growing the mushrooms is really quite amazing! And the mushrooms were beautiful, especially when we put them in the cute little baskets they gave us!
Well, mushrooms are good and all, but after mushroom picking we were ready for a snack. In Gunma, what better snack than Yaki Manju!
We hit the road again, in search of the Kinokoen. On the way we stopped at another rest stop, bought some yogurt and bread at a bakery, and were given some leftover crumbs to feed the ducks at a nearby pond by the baker. We fed the ducks a little, and then gave our bag of crumbs to a family that had a small child.
Then we got lost again, although we didn't realize it. We showed up at the doors of a sake factory, only to find out it was closed. By the way that big brown ball of pine needles is an indicator that the sake has fermented. When the needles turn brown, the sake is good to drink.
The water source of the sake factory.
After 40 minutes or so of being lost, we found the correct way, and did it ever have a beautiful view.
Finally, we got to the village where the kinokoen was supposed to be, but we couldn't seem to find it. We made a brief stop in the local park and took a break to slide down what may be the longest slide I have ever seen. A brief snowball fight ensued.
Finally, after driving for about 4 hours, we arrived at the kinokoen.
The kinokoen was not what I expected, more of a shop than a factory. But they did sell some speciality items. A special type of mushroom, for one, and a bag of fungus for growing mushrooms.
Well, we bought a lot of mushrooms. Then, very satisfied with our day, we began to drive home. We decided to take the car over Akagi. We began to drive up Akagi. Soon, I realized there was very little gas left in the car. Shortly thereafter the road got icy like no one had driven on it. Soon enough, we noticed that no one was on the road that we were on and it was then we came to the sign informing the us that the road was closed. Well, fortunately, we had enough gas to get to a local village and refill, but had things gone a little diffrently, we might have been taking shelter in snow caves. Our drive then took us all the way around Akagi and almost to Tochigi. I finally got home at about 8pm that night.

On Sunday, I met with Jeff and together we went to go see one of his friend's children perform Kabuki in Maebashi. The performance that we were scheduled to see was a little late in starting, so Jeff and I decided to get our faces painted like Kabuki actors at the make-up booth that was being run by students of the Takasaki Beauty Mode professional school. The students were more than happy to have the chance to put make-up on the faces of adults, who don't seem to want make up put on very often.
The whole time I was in the chair, I this one guy with a very official looking press corps name tag kept taking my picture, so I get the feeling that I am going to be in a magazine. Yippie! These are the girls that did my make-up.
Our make-up done, Jeff, his friend Minako and I went into the the theater and sat down. Our make-up seems to have been just as big a hit with grandmothers as it was with children. For some reason, with scary make-up on, we were suddenly un-scarry enough to talk to. I have never had so many grandmothers come up to me and want to take my picture. Anyway, the play started. It was well acted, considering that all the parts were done by grammar school students. But as I didn't understand the Japanese they used at all I only got so much out of it.
The highlight of the show for me was when Yuri, who hadn't been there for the make-up, came in late, sat down next to me, saw me and then tried her best to control her laughter in the middle of one of the play's dramatic scenes. Well, that was kabuki. Allow me to leave you with one parting shot. Who in this picture has a future as a professional, I wonder?
So, now to reveal my secret. Yuri bought me a new pet. I told her all about my cat and how I really missed the cat. She empathized, and decided that what I needed was a new pet. So she bought me Fuzzy. Fuzzy is a block of Nameko fungus. Yuri says that I should sleep with Fuzzy at night to keep her warm. We'll see.
By the way, a block of fungus is a gift from the heart. Way better than flowers. I think Fuzzy and I are going to get along just fine.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

2007: The Newest Year On Record (as of 2007)

Happy New Year! And so far, a Happy New Year it is. My last week in Hawaii was good and very low key. Not much to report really. Got a lot of shopping done, and ate a lot of sweets that I wouldn't normally eat in a desperate attempt to gain weight (to no avail, I only gained 2 pounds). Still, the sweets tasted nice. Here is the shave ice that I ate when Oriana, Nick, Josh and I went on an emergency shave ice run before we took family photos.
And here is the lucky New Year's honu that showed p on our beach in the last hours of 2006.
After the experimentation with the pineapple last 4th of July, I had just about had enough of fireworks. Strangely, this year, the one who really got into the fireworks was mom. She even joined in when the Devits and Kira started throwing poppers at each other.
Fireworks at Hapuna were twice as good this year, since they seem to have gotten all the fireworks that the Mauna Kea would have had as well.
That was New Years. In the time between New Years and coming back to Japan, my big activity was helping Grandpa Clay and Grandma Mary buy a computer, setting it up for them and teaching them how to use it. I am so happy that, at last, Grandma and Grandpa have the ability to check this blog.

So now, let us begin the story for real. I left for Japan on January 5th, at 4am. Grandpa Clay came down to the house, and came to the airport with mom, dad and I. I had a huge suitcase, packed with chocolate for my coworkers, vitamins, hand sanitizer and other various things that I could not get in Japan. But it took until I was in the air before I realized that there was something rather important that I did not have: the key to my apartment. The realization that I did not have my key in my wallet struck me as my plane took off from Honolulu, which meant I had a 9 hour flight to contemplate the fact that it was probably going to cost me a lot of money to get a new key. Not only that, it was probably going to be difficult since the apartment is not actually in my name, the shop where I would have to get the key was far from any train station, and by the time I arrived in Gunma it was probably going to be close to closing time. Well, I hate to say it, but this story doesn't have much of an ending. When I got to Japan I called Yuri, and by the time I got to Gunma she had solved every problem that I had.

A few days later, Yuri and I went to Kaiten sushi. You know how in America they have sushi boats? Well, that style of sushi has gotten far more advanced in Japan. You can order individual dishes on a touch panel screen...
and they arrive by train!
After Kaiten Sushi, we went to a park in Takasaki to fly a kite that I had just purchased.
So, I tried the kite a couple of times, and had limited success getting it to fly. So I let Yuri try, and in no time she had it soaring at the end of it's string.
I took over the kite and Yuri went off to climb a tree and see if she could rescue a second kite that had been entangled in a tree on a previous day.
A crowd of people came over to see the kite fly. I offered it to one woman who looked interested, and no sooner had she touched it then it fell out of the sky and into a tree. I told her it was no problem, and gently began to untangle it. Finally, five minutes later, one big tug and I had it free. It began soaring again right away. As soon as it up, I offered it to a different woman to try. No sooner had I given it to her than the string came loose from the handle and the kite and string began to float towards some nearby shinkansen tracks. Luckily, a tree caught the kite before it could become a hazard. This time we had a problem. We could not reach any part of the kite. Even the string was suspended 20 feet up between two trees. At that time, just about everyone in the park came over to help us. Finally a man with a baseball glove showed up and threw the glove in the air. The glove brought the string down with it, and once I had the string I was able to get the kite down. The woman who had lost control of the kite was very moved by the whole adventure. To begin with, it seems as though she hadn't had much contact with foreigners, so being offered the chance to fly a kite by a foreigner, and one who didn't even mind if she lost his kite as the result of an honest mistake, seemed to have had a rather positive effect on her. The kite adventure did feel quite symbolic, like an omen of things to come, but I don't know enough about what happens next to interpret the signs yet.

The next day I met Yuri, Kyoko and Kyoko's mother at the Maebashi Hatsuichi, or first market of the year. Gunma is famous for its daruma figurines, as you will recall from my post that talked about Shorinzan Temple. Here is the big daruma at the Maebashi Hatsuichi.
Here is the overhead view of the Maebashi Hatsuichi.
I had dressed in rather light pants before I went to the Maebashi Hatsuichi, unfortunately, and I spent most of the time cold. The cold nearly sent me home in fact, before I had met up with anyone, but in the end, it was very worth braving the cold. I decided to buy a daruma figurine, but I left the bargaining to Yuri, who is an avid and skilled bargainer.
And this man has the most expensive head decoration that I have ever seen at a festival. Japan sure is a safe country. Where else could you wear 10 hundred dollar bills on your forehead, at night, in a public place?
And that is how 2007 began.

Now before I forget, here is my New Year's Resolution. In 2007 I am going to dream.