As far as first world problems go, Shana and I had a tough first week or so in our new city. We moved to a place where our landlords didn’t speak English. We had no phone. We had no internet. We had no transportation. It decided to snow and rain for like a week straight. Oh did I mention that our first weekend our toilet basically leaked everywhere? Mind you it was clean water, but still the bathroom floor was covered in ice-cold water. Speaking of cold water… Our hot water heater decided it didn’t want to work after we moved in and it wasn’t as if we could call someone about it.
With a little help from our company JoyTalk and despite the language barrier we were able to get settled quite nicely. That first weekend was rough. Our landlords, Sacha & Miyuki felt so bad they brought us a bunch of stuff. Coffee, tea, a space heater and helped explain the trash sorting by literally helping us sort out our trash.
Well after the incident with the hot water heater needing two visits from the water works company, Sacha came and got us took us to her place so we could shower while the plumber was installing a brand new unit in our apartment. It was one of the best showers I have had in a long time because I literally had not been able to shower for about 3 days. I’m sure it took all of their effort not to wretch when I got in their car.
Miyuki and Sacha felt very bad about our first week here that they went so far out of their way to make us feel at home. Miyuki even went and bought a smart phone with a translator app so she would have an easier time communicating with us even though we are likely her only English-speaking tenants.
After the hot water fiasco (about 2 weeks ago) Miyuki and Sacha invited Shana and I to go to a hanami. Hanami is Japanese for flower (hana) viewing (mi). It is basically a picnic that is held to celebrate the blossoming of the sakura (cherry) tree. This is a big deal in Japan. It is one of the few times in Japanese culture where it is ok to really let loose. People picnic all day and drink under the cherry blossoms.
So Saturday April 13th finally came around and we were picked up at 10:00AM for what turned out to be one of the coolest experiences we have had together in all of our travels. I rank this day up there with sea kayaking in Thailand, St. Chappelle in Paris and the Shakespeare festival in Ashland.
We started out with a short walk about half way up a large hill in a little town called Ogawara-machi. The path is completely covered by the legendary sakura and they are in full bloom. Even though it is spring, the flowers make it look like the trees are covered in pink snow or lightly dusted with pink clouds. We have never seen so many cherry trees in one place. This stunning display makes the Tidal Basin in D.C. seem quaint. Millions of cherry blossoms surrounded us, assaulting our senses with beauty beyond compare. The fleeting fragility of their life-span makes their abundance all the more meaningful. If you could step into an Impressionist painting and walk among Monet’s brush points, you would have the closest understanding of the experience. It is literally picture perfect, by which I mean that your camera could not take a bad picture here, even if you handed it to a drunken blind person. When you first are told that hanami is flower-viewing, it doesn’t quite register as an “activity,” but when you are actually there you want nothing more than to lie on your back and stare, forever.
As we get to the first landing there is a large festival area where lots of food stalls, souvenirs and even traditional dance demonstrations are going on. Miyuki stops the whole group and has us sit down while she goes and buys beer for Shana and I and then proceeds to get snacks for the whole family. We tried to pay multiple times but neither Miyuki or Sacha would have any of it. We were the guests. Miyuki’s father brought back several different types if yakitori including gyutan (beef tongue), grilled calamari, gyunniku (beef tenderloin), chikkin (haha its chicken), French fries, and something called konnyaku, sometimes spelled konjac. They kept calling it yams. It is not yams. It is a deep fried zero calorie gelatin mix of tofu and the root of “Devil’s Tongue.” It can best be likened to eating a well-done scallop that has no flavor. It’s basically tasteless but is incredibly high in fiber. In fact Miyuki was quite insistent that it was good for “cleaning.” Maybe a little too chewy but nevertheless we ate them because they were offered to us. Next time we are in need of some high-density fiber in our diet, we will know what to ask for. Shana thinks this needs to be required in Europe to accompany every serving of goulash and dumplings.
After stuffing our faces we started a short walk up a much steeper section of the hill. There is a tram for those who want to stand in line. Otherwise it is a peaceful walk if you don’t mind the hike or don’t have too much to carry. The walk way was lined by daffodils, daisies, and pansies. As we crested the hill a massive white statue of the goddess Kannon came into view and finally a flat picnic area at the top with tables, an ice cream stand, noodle shop and a vista that will take your breath away.
The vista was amazing. The mountains of the northern end of the Ou mountain range were crystal clear and still covered with snow. Mt. Zao is the tallest at 1800 meters or so. The town of Shiroshi is visible on one side of the lookout and on the other side was Shibata, Iwanuma and the Pacific Ocean. As we looked down on the East side of the hill we could see the Abakuma-gawa (gawa is river in Japanese) which is lined with more than 1000 cherry trees in the Shibata area.
Time for more food.
Sacha brought homemade o-nigiri (rice balls). There was spicy tuna with plum, spicy roe, herbed catfish, dango (dumplings covered in sweet and savory sauces) and homemade pickles as well. We all pigged out for about an hour just enjoying the weather, the sakura, the food and having funny broken Japanese and English conversations. There is a drink here called Calpis. When said with a Japanese accent…well it kinda sounds likes cow piss. Anyways, we explained that we were not sure how to drink it because it’s very concentrated and sort of resembles liquid detergent. They all had a good laugh as I pantomimed washing clothes with juice.
After we all felt quite full we started to wander down the hill through the wildflower gardens along the path. Several plum (Ume) trees were also in bloom along the trail back down towards the parking lot. We are thinking, “What a great day,” and trying to think of ways to triple thank Miyuki and Sacha. We get to the bottom hill and Sacha is a very insistent that whole group follow her into this community center. There is a tai chi demonstration going on and we sort of walk through it.
On the other side of the demonstration was a small room with floor to ceiling windows. We were took off our shoes and stepped inside where we were asked to sit and watch some of the demonstration. There was much fussing by several elderly women in full traditional kimonos with obis. In a couple of minutes they came out with trays for each member of our group with chocolate & green tea flavored mochi, freshly brewed green tea and sakura crackers. I asked Miyuki if this was the type of place that also did “cha no yun” which is a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. She misunderstood a little bit and just asked the women running the teashop to give a lesson to us about cha no yun.
There was another gentleman there who was Japanese but also a tourist and he spoke enough English where he translated the gist of the important points. The elderly woman in the kimono explained many things but the basic understanding is that everything in cha no yun is purposeful, there is no wasteful movement and the entire thing for both server and drinker is a performance. The ladle for the hot water (oyu) has to be placed just right. There is a particular way to not only hold the tea powder but also to open and close the container. The teacup has to be cleaned with hot water and even the folds of the towel are precise and exact. On our way out Sacha took us over to the actual tea house on the property where a traditional cha no yun would be performed.
To think that it was only three pm when we were leaving the park grounds and heading back to our apartment. We spent most of the car ride trying to look for translations that reflected the proper amount of gratitude. In spite of the language barrier the looks on our faces probably gave us away. We were truly, truly thankful and could not have asked for a better cultural experience.