…and what have you learned? – A Japanese Year in Review

Fushimi-InariJust about everyone… and their brother, and their cousin and their cousin’s lawyer do year end posts. The arbitrary changing of the year based on the Roman calendar encourages us humans to look backwards over the past year and look forward into the next one. You will read many top ten lists of things from the last year. Likely, you will see even more “resolutions” for 2014.

I guess I am no different. 2013 was a life changing year for me. I moved to a foreign country. That is a lot. I guess I could stop there with the reflection. But… blogging… so, nope.

My reflections for 2013 centered around some things that I have learned since moving to a foreign country.

Check out Shana’s 2013 reflections here.

I’ve learned…

to gesture more effectively. I don’t speak Japanese and I live in Japan, Is that gesture, “crippling frustration” OR “delicious sushi…?” Sometimes I have to get by with pointing and gestures. Japanese people are also very patient. This is helpful.

Mabodofuhow to say “I’m sorry,” and “excuse me” in 7 languages; including Japanese, Greek, English, German, French, Spanish, and Thai.

that I can indeed ride my bike in a driving rainstorm. It’s just not very pleasant. By not very pleasant, I mean unpleasant. Other unpleasant things include: strong wind, intense heat, sleet, snow, freezing temperatures, and direct sunlight.

how to cook mabodofu. A Chinese dish that is staple of many households in Japan since it is incredibly easy to cook and is extremely filling. I can make it all in one pot. It has meat in it. It’s spicy. Suki desu!

sweaty shirt

sweaty shirt

that it’s so humid during rainy season, no matter how much rain gear I wear I will still get soaked. The choice is between being drenched in sweat or dripping with rain water.

how to play babanuki and karuta. Two children’s card games that require very little speaking and come in very handy in class.

that I am a way less picky eater than I thought I was. Every day school lunch is a complete surprise. For that matter sometimes just going to the grocery store can result in unintended ingestion. One of my favorite snacks here in Japan is o-nigiri because I usually don’t know what’s inside until after I bite into it. SURPRISE! Fish Eggs!

how to properly express disbelief in Japanese. This is important because often times students will say absolutely unbelievable things to me and simply expressing disbelief in English isn’t good enough. Try it out on someone you know!

that it is possible to continue living even if I don’t see 100% of every football game. I was shocked to find this out. I still am not 100% convinced that it’s even possible. I might have to wait and see what happens with hockey season.

how to appreciate nihon-shu. Japanese sake is delicious, this was an easy lesson. Also beer is stupid expensive in Japan.

that Japan is really green, like the color. Seriously. BRIGHT Green. It looks like the pacific northwest but with skinnier trees.green japan

how to sing a harmony. Watch out CSN+Y. Shana and I are coming for you. Shana has diligently been taking my awful singing voice and making it some what less offensive. We don’t have a TV so we fill some of our evenings by annoying our neighbors with acoustic renditions of Alt Rock hits from the late nineties like Shine, by Collective Soul, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Deep Blue Something and Wonder Wall, by Oasis.

that I like yuru kyara. Japanese mascots are great. No really. They are fascinating.

how to be more polite. I am sure that I wasn’t particularly rude when I lived in America but now I am so conscious of being rude to people that I have become overly polite.

I only laughed a little bit when I first saw this, SUPER POLITE.

I only laughed a little bit when I first saw this, SUPER POLITE.

Finally I learned…

that I want to keep traveling. Treating my wanderlust with a heavy dose of Japan has made me fall in love all over again with adventure. I plan on seeing as much of Japan as possible and then we’ll see where the next adventure takes us… India? Southeast Asian Archipelago? Scandanavia? Alaska? Traveling makes me excited to simply be alive.

Nightlife in Sendai – Kokubuncho

Sendai is Tohoku’s largest city.

What does it have to offer in the way of evening distractions?

Kokubuncho at night, in the snow

Just like any other large city there is a host of expensive bars and night clubs where you can light money on fire and throw it into the air (metaphorically speaking of course). The price of admission into just about any nightlife excursion is usually high but if you have a good time it was worth it right?

Karaoke, Sendai, Clis RdIn Japan drinking establishments sometimes offer what is called, “nomihodai” (飲み放題). This literally means bottomless cup. For a nominal fee of $15 to $20 you will get all you can drink for about 90 to 120 minutes depending on the place. However, many places particularly in very popular areas will charge a seat fee just to sit in their restaurant. On top of that it is likely that while you are drinking you will order food. Your special price for all that alcohol just got really expensive.

However, there are some hidden gems. For instance there is a karaoke place on Clis Road (Clis Rd is a covered shopping arcade) that offers one of the cheapest nomihodais in Sendai, free snacks and you get to karaoke. Not to mention you get to make your own drinks. Hello Mr. Hangover, how are you today? Not well, indeed. There is a gyoza shop that offers a $20 nomihodai set that comes with 12 gyoza, pickles, and cabbage salad. The gyoza is fantastic but it tastes even better with reasonably priced booze.

Kokubuncho signIf squirreling yourself away in a small karaoke booth with 5 close friends is not your idea of a night on the town the place to be in Sendai is called Kokubuncho. Kokubuncho is several blocks of densely packed bars, clubs, restaurants, shopping, and Japanese people dressed to the nines for a night on the town. About every ten feet there will be a Japanese person shouting and handing out coupons for their establishment. There is even a miniature Arc-de-Triomphe hidden away in Kokubuncho. Let me know if you find it.

Kokubuncho’s restaurant selection is likely the most diverse in the city. There are several Spanish style tapas places, sandwich shops, all of the traditional Japanese fare, the odd British pub or two, Phô and Thai food. There is even a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah lounge called Middle Mix, which I was told by the owner, is the only one in all of Tohoku. There is no lack of drinking establishments either. The entire place is one giant drinking establishment. I couldn’t even begin trying to do a pub crawl there.

Rainbow Building, KokubunchoOstensibly going to Kokubuncho is for drinking or a drinking party (nomikai, bonenkai, other kinds of kai). Japanese society is relatively repressed and places like Kokubuncho are where stifled salary men, demure females and gai-jin of all kinds of come together in a beer and alcohol soaked good time. This is where the Japanese really cut loose. It’s fair to say that they are not particularly shy about taking it to extreme limits.

Kokubuncho is basically broken in three separate areas. There is the college area that is filled with cheap dining establishments and some of the more tame forms of entertainment like gaming centers and pachinkos. The next area is for the salary men (and women, although its mostly men in dark suits). The restaurants and bars here are little nicer and a little pricier, and usually a little more on the traditional Japanese side. Lastly there is the “Pink area” which requires a bit more explanation.

The pink area of Kokubuncho “features” Sendai’s largest collection of “host and hostess clubs, strip clubs and other slightly less reputable engagements. It’s not a true red light district in the traditional Amsterdam-ian sense but there is clearly enough “entertainment” in that fashion to give Kokubuncho a seedy feel in certain parts. It’s by no means dangerous but a little on the unctuous side.

Funny advert for a horny guy, KokubunchoThese clubs aren’t exactly hidden away. If anything, they are probably the main attraction to the area outside of drinking heavily. The advertisements rarely leave anything to the imagination. The funniest one is this guy to the right, a common manga trope is to signal arousal via a massive nosebleed. As a foreigner there is very little I can offer in the way of experiential anecdotes about hostess clubs. They don’t cater to non Japanese speakers and even if you are fluent in Japanese you might get a brief Japanese grammar test at the door. Hostess and host clubs are looking for long term customers so they don’t really want crazy drunk tourists mucking up their vibe. Apart from the mostly nude women on bill boards there are also many flower shops in the area. Presumably you can buy flowers to curry favor with whatever hostess or host you are meeting that evening.

However, sandwiching Kokubuncho is Jozen-ji dori and Clis Road which are two major thoroughfares in Sendai filled with shopping, restaurants, bars and 100 yen stores. One of the best things about Sendai is most everything is very close together and centrally located around Sendai station. It’s only about a 20 minute walk down Aoba-dori from Sendai Station to Kokubuncho or you can take the subway 2 stops and get off at Kotodai-koen and exit through the Mitsukoshi Department store.

During the winter Jozen-ji dori is a absolutely stunning. It is covered in white holiday lights and they have a park light exposition called, “The Pageant of Starlight,” as well. In the snow it is really quite a romantic place (minus the crowds). There are also temporary structures that sell warm drinks and adult beverages.

Most of the buildings around Sendai station are just like any other shopping arcade in Japan or the rest of the world for that matter. Name brands stores, colorful signs and groovy techno music to help you shop – but Kokubuncho is just a little different.Kokubuncho at night

I happen to quite like Kokubuncho despite its outward appearance. I like the variety, the people watching, the shouting, the confusing mass of tangled power lines. Everything about Kokubuncho looks as if it was delivered straight from a movie set about post-modern Japan. I can hear Kaneda revving his red motorcycle some where around the corner and somewhere above me cybernetic human in stealth mode is planning an assassination. Walking around Kokubuncho on a Saturday night is like stepping in a manga comic. You can’t help but be fascinated by everyone’s costumes, by the colors and the lights.

Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.

A Day in SendaiYamaderaMatsushimaZao OkamaMinamisanrikuMt. Izumi

Zao Okama

IMG_2079

My fascination with volcanoes continues! In September, Andrew, a fellow English teacher named Chris and I headed to Yamagata to see the “Five Colored Pond” of Tohōku, Zaō Okama. Zaō Okama is a classic crater lake that according to the Japanese, resembles a large cooking pot and changes colors depending on the weather. The “five” colors seem to be varying shades of blue and green, but apparently if conditions are right, it can look yellow or red, too.

Clockwise: Chris, Shana, Andrew

Clockwise: Chris, Shana, Andrew

There is a surprisingly small amount of information in English about this beautiful volcanic phenomenon. On a side note, there is a disparity of information on the Tohoku region in general, especially Miyagi and Iwate in part due to the recent earthquake and tsunami. The 2013 Lonely Planet guide book we bought (published in 2011) decided to just completely skip the region, “In response to the Great East Japan Earthquake we have removed coverage of the affected areas from this guide book…” because they assumed A) no one would want to travel there after the devastation and B) that nothing would be up and back to normal any time soon. Well, they were wrong on both counts. Japan is particularly good about tending to their infrastructure, and what area if any needs the most tourism? Tohoku, thanks for nothing Lonely Planet. Anyway…

Our friend Chris said that the lake wasn’t a very popular tourist attraction. “Nobody goes here anymore, it’s too crowded,” he might have said if he was Yogi Berra. I can’t tell if the lake isn’t popular because there’s no good information about the it or, is there no good information about the lake because it’s not popular. Seems like a vicious circle, but if you find yourself in Tohoku, here’s why you should go:

Zaō Okama

Zaō Okama

It’s AMAZING. It’s stunning, it’s breathtaking. It’s on a volcano and volcanoes are awesome! Once you reach the crater, you can hike almost completely around it, getting a 270 degree view of its glory. For my woodblock print series, “36 Views of Lake Okama”:

To the right of the information center, there are also hundreds of these stacked rock formations. You can even build your own, add a flag and claim Zaō for yourself.

I’m not exaggerating to be facetious, it truly is incredible. I spent over two hours just gazing at its majesty. When you’ve had all the beauty you can take, you can drive around the mountain to Zaō Onsen and soak in the sulfuric volcanic waters. It’s the real deal, so the town is a bit stinky, but you get used to it quickly. Since the whole town sits OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAon the natural spring, there are more than one onsen  to choose from. We found a nice quiet one and got thoroughly warm and relaxed after our excursion. There are indoor onsen, and outdoor onsen. The most famous outdoor onsen is Dairotenburo, which is carved into a ravine. After your soak, you can grab some dinner and head home. Zaō is also know for its dairy farms, so you can score some fresh cheese and milk on your trip. We saw a fantastic harvest moon that night, maybe you could be so lucky…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile living in Tohoku can have its down sides, I’m rather happy I got the chance to live here and experience some of the wonderful places in northern Honshū. Zaō Okama is a place that will definitely stick with me. Japan itself is home to 24 crater lakes. Compare that with the 28 in all of the United States! I clearly have my volcanic sight-seeing cut out for me here. God forbid I ever end up in Indonesia, they have 38 crater lakes!!

The biggest problem with Lake Okama is getting there. Luckily, our friend Chris has a car, but without your own set of wheels, it’s a bit more difficult. Zaō is a cluster of stratovolcanoes, the most active in Tohoku, that runs along the border of the Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures. This means you have to approach the mountain from either the west (Yamagata) or the east (Miyagi). If you are driving, the Miyagi side is a little more amenable. If you need public transportation, the Yamagata side is better. The wording and “map” for the directions on Japan-guide.com is very confusing. Here’s a better visual to outline your travel options:

Zao DiagramThe best times to see the lake are between May and late October. After this, the mountain becomes skiier’s territory, although the famous “snow monsters” are worth a gander. We went in mid-September and it was absolutely perfect. No humidity, temperatures around 70. It did get a tad windy however, so bring a jacket just in case.

Driving:

If you have a car, your options are simple. Drive to either of Zaō Okama’s two parking lots on the Zaō Echo Line road. One has free parking, but a 700¥ chair lift you must take to see the lake. The other lot is 500¥, but then you can walk right up to the crater in a few minutes. I recommend the later, since there’s no hassle of waiting around for a chair lift to come. The drive from Sendai is about an hour and a half.

Bus and train:

If you don’t have a car, you’ll have to take a bus from Yamagata-shi, Zaō Onsen or Shiroishi. The buses only run on weekends and holidays in late April until late October. Buses run from a few destinations: the Yamagata station on the Senzan JR line, the Shiroishizao station on the Tohoku-Shinkansen line, or from the small town named Zaō Onsen.

Coming from Yamagata-shi:

This is where the information online gets really confusing:
-The bus from Zaō Onsen is 1430¥ oneway and takes an hour.
-The bus from Yamagata station is about 2000¥ oneway and takes 90 minutes.

Japan-guide says the buses only leave once a day, with one return trip, but it doesn’t say which bus or what time. Helpful, yes? You can take a bus from Yamagata to Zaō Onsen for 1000¥. It’s 40 minutes and comes once an hour. It’s a bit out of the way to go that route unless you really want to go to an onsen. Again, no idea what time or where the buses land and depart from Zaō. This crappy map denotes a “Bus Terminal”:

Any clearer now?

Any clearer now?

Coming from Miyagi:

If you are coming from the Miyagi side, you’ll have to:
-Take the JR Senzan line to Yamagata station, then deal with the bus from there.
-You can also take the Tohoku Shinkansen line to the Shiroishizao station, where there is apparently a bus to the lake, but the bullet train is going to cost you more.
-The JR Shiroishi station on the Tohoku line is nearby, but I don’t know if there are any buses to Zaō Okama that originate there, so you might have to find another bus to Shiroishizao station. Ugh…
-If you depart from Zaō Onsen, you can skip the bus and take a ropeway up to Zaō’s second peak, Sanpokojinsan for 2500¥. From Sanpokojisan you can apparently “see the lake,” but for a closer view you have to walk another 45 minutes to get to Kattadake peak. Then either trek back to the ropeway or grab the one hour bus back.

All of this is extremely convoluted, I’m sorry, probably one of the reasons why Zao isn’t very popular. Are you thoroughly confused and have now sworn off visiting this place? I don’t blame you, but just take this as an opportunity to test out your skills driving on the wrong side of the road! Seriously, look at these pictures, you know you want to go to here…

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Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.

A Day in SendaiKokubunchoYamaderaMatsushimaMinamisanrikuMt. Izumi

Rokkon-sai – Fukushima City

I had promised myself that the first opportunity to attend a Japanese festival that presented itself, I would go. Thankfully a fellow ALT in Soma City, Fukushima-ken posted a note about the Rokkon-sai festival in Fukushima City.

Rokkon-sai is a celebration of the 6 different prefectures that make up the Tōhokū region of Japan; Aomori, Yamagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Akita and Miyagi where I currently reside. Rokkon-sai acts a preview for each of the 6 prefectures own festivals. For instance, the Aomori prefecture has a festival called, Aomori Nebuta, with lots of cool floats in a parade, great food and special costumes for the occasion.

Panorama of the parade

Panorama of the parade

Getting to Fukushima city was a bit difficult. Because of the long distance from Iwanuma to Fukushima city we didn’t want to be held hostage to a train deadline. We enlisted a different ALT (Chris) who has a car to see if he wanted to go. Lucky for Shana and I he is an awesome dude and said he would drive down there.

A CoCo's in rural Japan. That is all.

A CoCo’s in rural Japan. That is all.

After a brief stop at 7/11 for cash, the best corn dogs in the world and some snacks for later, we hit the road at about 8:30 AM. While the weather in Miyagi was pretty crappy, we headed south, made decent time and got to the simply overcast but not rainy Fukushima prefecture in good time. Once we got to the outskirts of Fukushima city we ran into a bit of a problem. There were volunteers posted a long the highway in bright orange shirts directing traffic for the festival. They just happened to be directing it in a completely different way than Chris’ previous map research had told him. Then there was the equally frustrating fact that the Rokkon-sai Orange Shirts were incredibly far apart. They would have a sign that said turn right here and then another orange shirt wouldn’t be seen for several kilometers. By following the orange be-shirted fellows we became severely “lost.” I don’t mean that we didn’t know how to get home or that we couldn’t find our way back but I mean that we had no idea where the festival was being held in relation to where the men with orange shirts were directing us.

Finally in Fukushima city proper, Chris decided to just look for city hall signs and we found a parking lot near the train station. If we had taken our original route I’m sure we would have arrived a solid 40 to 60 minutes earlier than we did. Either way the arrival time was spilled milk and we still had the better part of the day to explore the festival and see what all the fuss was about.

Joey & Tori, the intrepid reporters!

Joey & Tori, the intrepid reporters!

We were able to meet up our friend Joey who as luck would have it had a “press” pass that got us through a barricade to the far side of the parade route without having to walk all the way around. Although where we ended up standing was not ideal in a “wow these are really comfortable seats to watch the parade from” kind of way; we did get to see the parade from up close and I doubt we would have been able to see much if we hadn’t have had Joey’s help. Part of the problem was that there was a small army of elderly Japanese women who can kneel on concrete comfortably for several hours at a time and I can’t. Not to mention only some of the people at the front wanted to squat or kneel and the ones who didn’t weren’t in front of the old ladies like I was. Shana and I eventually gave up our spots to the elderly folks behind us and felt like standing in the back was a better solution. I found a ledge with which I could climb on every now and then to take pictures as long as the parade steward wasn’t looking directly at me.

The parade was a short and an interesting mix of traditional Japanese and popular culture elements. There was traditional fan dancing and floats as well as hip hop dancers and beauty queens. It was a short parade because (and this is only my assumption) parades stop being fun after about 30 min especially after you have waited for about 2 hours squatting or standing in the same spot. We were excited to let the real fun start with food and beverage consumption.

Momo-Rin and I

Momo-Rin and I

We started walking towards the Fukushima City horse racing track to see what sort of event stuff was set up there but alas there was not much but some food tents and Momo-rin the Fukushima-City mascot. Momo-rin and his?/hers? mascot brethren will be the subject of a different post. Momo-rin is a reference to the peaches that ripen while there is still snow on the ground in the mountains that surround Fukushima City. However, a person with a terrible understanding of idiomatic Japanese could interpret Momo-rin as “phosphorous thigh,” “peach thigh,” and “sexually appealing phosphorous.” Momo-rin is a large bunny in a red vest with a yellow bow-tie and none of those things.

Making several stops along the way at different food stands We tried some fried chicken, a hot dog in an egg roll, a Korean spicy beef on rice (yakiniku gohan) and some micro brewed beer from Fukushima-ken aptly named, “We Love Beer.” They had a dunkel, a weisse and a peach beer. There was a cool Taikō drumming presentation that we watched for a bit. Mostly we just soaked up a happy crowd. Along the street  there were many people taking advantage of the crowds and setting up popsicle stands, fried rice stalls and street performers shilling for an audience. One such street act was a sad robot that was doing “the robot” to slow and sad music. One of the more odd things I’ve come across. Despite its oddness the robot had drawn quite a crowd.

We also crossed off the list another city in which Shana and I have been accosted by elderly drunk Japanese people. Confrontation is definitely a rarity in Japanese culture but our non-Japaneseyness seems to encourage the inquisitively wasted. In this particular encounter an old man asked us where we were from and told Shana she was beautiful. Then he proceeded to a demand answers on what life was really about…in Japanese. The only reason I know this is because Chris speaks Japanese and was very weirded out by how deep the man getting during a random street festival encounter. Unsatisfied with our answers the man politely wandered in the other direction in search of the meaning of life or maybe an unoccupied restaurant booth to sleep in.

Taiko drumming

Taiko drumming

Back at the train station we needed to get to the other side of tracks to get to the parking lot but due to festival traffic we had to basically cover the entire distance of the train station and then double back to where the car was. Not the most convenient route ever but it did give us an opportunity to tease Chris about Mister Donuts, his one weakness. Back at the car and filled with food and drink we settled in for an uneventful ride back to Iwanuma. We did spot a CoCo’s. That was kind of an event… Until the next festival.

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Iwanuma, Japan

岩沼し宮城県

Iwanuma-shi, Miyagi-ken – Living in “rural” Japan.

When Shana and I received our contract offers to work in Japan in a town called Iwanuma we looked up Iwanuma on the internet and well, didn’t really find out much. The wiki article about Iwanuma is basically a “stub” and most of the information on the internet was in Japanese (available for hilarious translations by Google but not very informative). The little we found out amounted to: a town of 40,000 people in the Miyagi prefecture that was adversely affected by the 2011 earthquake. We could definitely tell what Iwanuma wasn’t. Iwanuma was not a big city, it was not a major tourist destination, and it was not a cultural center of Japanese life.

After living here for two months, I finally feel equipped to comment a little bit on living in “rural” Japan.

First and foremost rural in Japan and rural America are going to mean different things. Japan has excellent transportation infrastructure and just isn’t big enough across to really isolate some place like say the Arizona Strip or West Texas. There is an interesting dichotomy of living in Iwanuma in that it feels very rural and yet I am only 20 minutes from a major metropolitan center. I would compare it to living in Chicagoland and taking the train into the Loop, if Chicagoland were entirely composed of rice patties instead of suburban homes.

Rice to meet you.

Rice to meet you.

Iwanuma is surrounded by farmland on 3 sides. From city hall to the sea wall on the eastern coast of Japan is about 12 kilometers of almost entirely farmland. I have to bike through a large portion of this to get to one of my junior high schools. To the North and South is also farmland save for a narrow strip of developed land that hugs the JR rail lines (Tōhoku & Joban Lines) and the main freeway (Rikuzenhama Hwy) that runs North and South along the East coast of Japan. There are small towns that hug the toll-way and the railroad tracks. To the South are Watari and Yamamoto. Heading North is Natori (location of the Sendai Intl Airport) and Sendai, the capital of the Miyagi prefecture. Sendai is about 20 minutes by train from Iwanuma. Finally heading westward are foothills, small tracts of farmland and the Oū Mtns.

Iwanuma proper is reminiscent of downtown Petaluma, CA the Orange Cir in Orange, CA or downtown Auburn, CA but not as charming as any of those places and all in Japanese. Central Iwanuma is crammed with little specialty restaurants, “snack” bars, retail stores and an unlikely concentration of, convenience stores, grocery stores and gambling facilities. While having the characteristic narrow streets and concentration of bars and restaurants it is immediately forgettable due to the ant-like conformity of its utilitarian architecture. There is no antique Japanese charm to Iwanuma at all save for Takekoma Shrine.

I mentioned the concentration of grocery stores because it does strike me as a very odd thing in that there just aren’t that many people here in Iwanuma and yet there are about as many grocery stores as there are in Sacramento. Within walking distance alone there are seven large-scale grocery stores and I haven’t even bothered counting all the convenience stores. They all predominately sell the same things and for the most part are relatively inexpensive. There is no Whole Foods or Nugget market in Iwanuma; it’s Savemart, Albertsons or Ralph’s.

The localest grown produce

Even more interesting is that even in the very developed areas of Iwanuma there are little plots of farmland (more like overgrown gardens) between all the houses. This begs the question, if many people are growing their own produce; how do all these grocery stores stay in business? I am very puzzled by this fact. Only about 20% (about 19,000 sq/mi) of Japan is suitable for agriculture and cultivation but I think its great that the locals here create truly local produce for local consumption.

These “gardens” are found in the more residential areas surrounding the small downtown center of Iwanuma. Here is where Iwanuma becomes a great place to walk around. These older neighborhoods have very unique housing and many people have great looking actual gardens next to their mini-farm plots. Also off the main drag of Iwanuma are all the good little sushi shops, yakiniku spots and all in all great food. While the storage locker like apartments and the newly built “Pana-Homes” steal from the general aesthetic most of the homes here are very beautiful. Off the beaten path is the best place to be in Iwanuma.

Restaurant culture here is very interesting. There are actually several Italian and French restaurants in the city, as well as a Korean restaurant, a Thai restaurant, a Gyu-kaku (all you can drink and eat in 70 minutes for about $30), several McDonald’s-es and a Big Boy. However for only about three dollars we can catch the train to Sendai and hit up all kinds of different restaurants. We are definitely not lacking in available culinary experiences. Restaurants are kind of expensive in Japan, especially if you want to have a drink with dinner. Our local favorite is a place called Jon Bran that makes fusion Italian, Malaysian and Japanese food. They make great hand tossed margherita pizza, tuna carpaccio and this fried chicken that is just stupid good. The local sushi chain Kapa makes some of the best french fries I have ever had. Also 7/11 has fantastic food. Seriously.

Speaking of convenience the locals have multiple options for “pachinko” palaces. These are gambling dens that pop up mostly along the Rikuzenhama Hwy. I have yet to indulge in any of the gambling. Much of the highway if you don’t want to pay tolls resembles a large boulevard more than a highway. I think of Fair Oaks Blvd. in Sacramento, 19th Ave. in San Francisco or any street in Orange County.

Pachinko Palace

Pachinko Palace

One of the best things about living in a “rural” area is riding my bike everywhere. Most of the time. Well… When I need to carry anything larger than what fits in my backpack, it rains, snows, is really windy, its hotter than a metaphor from a Rob Thomas song; then riding your bike everywhere sucks. Bad. I feel in some ways I am repaying my debt to the environment for driving a V8 Silverado around for 4 years and then buying the least economical vehicle possible when I bought a Jeep Wrangler as a commuter car. I miss my Jeep. On the bright side my carbon footprint is nil, my maintenance bill on the bike is non-existent and I’m getting a lot of exercise. Grocery shopping is fine because we can’t fit too much in our apartment anyway and there really isn’t a place to buy in bulk. Costco and Wal-Mart are nowhere to be found.

Since there are very few English speakers in Iwanuma we haven’t really made an effort to try and enjoy nightlife. Also we can drink at home for much less than we could at a bar. A 4 liter bottle sojū only costs about fifteen dollars. I will dedicate an entirely separate post to bars in Sendai and bars in Iwanuma. Until then I will continue to enjoy my “rural” lifestyle.

There isn’t much different between living here in Iwanuma and living in Sacramento. Sacramento is surrounded by farmland and is often referred to as a cow town. Sacramento is called “The City of Trees” and so is Sendai. Most of the shops that are in Sacramento are found here in Iwanuma or Sendai, even Starbucks. Takekoma shrine is a lot like Sutter’s Fort in that its old and in the middle of the city. There is a river that goes through Iwanuma just like Sacramento.

It’s mostly the same…except for all the Japanese signs, none of our family or friends, a public transit system that actually works, and really cheap seafood.

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1000 Steps – Yamadera

Here in Japan there is a holiday that is basically several holidays all rolled into one week called, “Golden Week.” Golden week happens in early May is basically a four day weekend that sort of resembles Labor Day. This is also the one of the busiest travel weekends in the whole year because nearly everyone has the day off.

As teachers we definitely had the day off. At the suggestion of a fellow teacher, Chris, we decided we were going to go a place called Yamadera on Sunday of Golden Week. Chris lives in a very rural area so he came down to Iwanuma the night before and crashed on our couch so we could get an early start to the day.

Cool flags at Takekoma

Cool flags at Takekoma

Chris arrived in the afternoon on Saturday and since we hadn’t really taken the time to see the two main tourist attractions in Iwanuma we all struck out for a late afternoon stroll to check out Takekoma Shrine and the famous Futaki Pine. Iwanuma has a pretty depressed tourism industry so these places are mostly empty. The shrine is one of the oldest in Japan and according to the 2009 (pre-tsunami) tourist brochure receives 1.6 million visitors a year. However the hotels in Iwanuma I think would tell otherwise nowadays as they all look very run down from the outside.

Takekoma shrine itself is a beautiful place and far more impressive than most of the shrines that Shana and I have visited. It has a very large entrance gate and well kept grounds. There is a neat little pond in the middle of the shrine which the tea garden in Golden Gate Park would be reminiscent of. In fact before I got to Japan I sort of imagined everything in Japan sort of looked like that.

Futaki Pine (二木)

Futaki Pine (二木)

We walked through the shrine and then headed back to the apartment despite my insistence that there was another tourist attraction in Iwanuma. This attraction is a tree made famous by Matsuo Bashō. There are tons of places around Iwanuma with the kanji characters that represent this most famous of trees in Iwanuma. I knew it was around the shrine but didn’t have my map with me because it is impossible to get lost in Iwanuma. We gave up the search and headed back. As we walked back the way we came I noticed a funny looking tree across the street and there it was. The Futaki Pine (二木). Its basically on the sidewalk of the local freeway that goes through town and there isn’t much around it but it was definitely the “Forked Pine”

For dinner we went out to our local restaurant called Jon Bran. Its decorated like an Irish Pub and has a fusion of Japanese and Italian food and is open until 27:00. The food while expensive is excellent and they have a gigantic cocktail list. They also have cheap sake which is what I primarily indulge in. Chris also helped us out because he is half Japanese and he speaks Japanese fluently. With Chris’ help we figured out what a bunch of the stuff on the menu is.

Open till 27:00... that is a late night place

Open till 27:00… that is a late night place

Yamadera (山寺)is in the Yamagata prefecture and is about one hour by standard JR train from Sendai’s main train station. It is yet another place that has become famous because of the shrines and some visits by the esteemed poet Matsuo Bashō. Yamadera is nestled in a little valley along a river and is completely surrounded by steep hills and mountains. A very picturesque place indeed. The main reason a person would visit Yamadera is to visit the shrines that are built up the hill above the pine forest canopy. With it being Golden Week there were massive lines at the train station and when we got to Yamadera for food and for entrance to the shrine. There is a shrine up the first set of 50 or so steps that has a separate line. You can purchase two types of tickets to climb Yamadera. There is a 500yen ticket to rub a fat Buddah’s belly and wait in a colossal line. There is a 300yen ticket just to climb the steps and visit all the shrines at the top of the mountain. Of course the signs are all in Japanese and even Chris had a hard time understanding which line we were supposed to stand in. My advice, just do the 300yen ticket and you can skip the main line and head straight for the hill climb.

If Yamadera had not been so busy it would have been a very taxing climb but because of the sheer volume of people the steps became a stop and go affair. This was rather nice because it allowed for some rest periods while making the steep ascent. There are 1000 steps to get to the top of the Yamadera shrine complex but I didn’t count so you’ll just have to take their word for it. There are helpful little signs that let you know how many steps you have left as you get near to the top.

Pine forest in Yamadera

Pine forest in Yamadera

The other interesting thing about the climb is that a different levels of the hill there are several shines where you can stop have a breather, buy some souvenirs and pray all in the same spot. Each shrine on the way up had its own little gift shop attached to it. Maybe people were simply taking advantage of the bench spaces to rest from the climb. In my opinion, and I have now climbed a fair amount of things with stairs including the Statue of Liberty, St. Peter’s, Sacre Coeur, and the Acropolis, and despite the volume of steps, Yamadera was one of the easier climbs I’ve made. There are actually three separate hikes to do in Yamadera and we only chose the shrine complex. Maybe we’ll head back and do the other two when we have spare Saturday or Sunday.

There is a covered viewing area at the top of the hill where I was able to get some fantastic shots of the valley and surrounding mountains of Yamadera. It’s hard not to stop at every level and take pictures because it really is just a very beautiful place. My recommendation would be to wait till you get to the top though because there are now power lines that will end up in many of your photos if you don’t wait till the very top to snap pictures of the valley.

After some breath taking with the wonderful view from the top of Yamadera (see what I did there, we caught our breath with a breath taking view, you see… breath taking…) we started the descent to grab some lunch and catch the next train back to Sendai. Every restaurant had a line out the door. Yamadera is very famous for its soba. Soba is buckwheat noodles that are typically served cold. We found a soba restaurant where they said there was a 30 min wait but when we got upstairs there were seats available so we sat down and someone came by to take our order. We ordered a massive plate of cold soba, a beef bowl with rice and a hamburger steak with rice. We then proceeded to wait about an hour and a half before our food showed up. The group remained calm however through the irony of being sat almost immediately and then still waiting and excruciatingly long time to be fed. The soba was excellent but I will not be returning to that restaurant. Ever.

Panoramic view of Yamadera

Panoramic view of Yamadera

In fact it took so long to get our food that we missed our train by about 5 minutes which was super frustrating because the trains only come once an hour in Yamadera. Chris made a great point that ice cream makes everything better so we bought our train tickets and then headed back to the town to get some ice cream and watch a street performer with a trained monkey. The monkey bowed like a Japanese person. It was adorable.

We caught the next train and after an hour of standing managed to make the transfer by about one minute to catch the next train to Iwanuma. A very successful trip indeed filled with immaculate views, excellent food (even if I had to wait) and ice cream. Tip of the hat to Chris for the excellent suggestion to visit Yamadera.

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Complete bliss in Matsushima

BLISS

BLISS

Over the weekend we visited one of Japan’s “most beautiful places,” according to the tourist map we were given upon our arrival in Matsushima. It was about an hour by train from our apartment in Iwanuma and one of the better days we have seen weather-wise. It is May and there are hardly any signs of summer’s approach, but we were graced with some sun so we took the opportunity to finally see the Pacific Ocean from the other side. We live on the coast now but the shore is not visible due to the large wall that has been built here post-tsunami. While it is obviously a smart precaution, it is rather unthinkable to us Californians to block off an ocean view.  Perhaps there was never much demand for scenic restaurants in Iwanuma.

Matsushima bay

Matsushima bay

Matsushima is a lovely little town on Japan’s east coast, tucked back in a bay that is home to hundreds of little islands covered with Japanese pines called matsu, from which the town derives its name. These pines are revered for their beauty and were made famous by the haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Once we arrived in town we enjoyed some lunch in the sunshine and then hopped on a small cruise boat that takes you through the bay for an hour to see some islands up close. The boat had two decks, and the upper deck was a bit more expensive. We couldn’t see what the difference was so we opted for the lower level, since it also had an open-air observation deck. As soon as the boat began its departure from the shore we realized why the upper level was preferable. Apparently the observation area is not for site-seeing and taking pictures, it is exclusively for feeding seagulls. Snacks are sold specifically to entice the seagulls to follow the boat in a swarm, and small children are encouraged to hold out food for the large birds to come grab out of their hands. Suffice to say I was not expecting to become a cast member of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when I bought my cruise ticket. Hundreds of seagulls surrounding the stern and followed us the entire hour, pacing the boat so closely that their wings routinely hit the posts of the deck. At any moment you could have reached your hands out and grabbed a bird. This may seem novel for a couple minutes, but I thought eventually the feeding frenzy would stop. No. The Japanese tourists fed the seagulls for the entire hour, making me wonder if this was the real attraction, not boring old islands.

Seagulls attacking the boat

Seagulls attacking the boat

By some miracle I managed to snap a few photos devoid of the birds, but I will never again be fooled into saving money on a Japanese boat tour. Back on the mainland we decided to explore the temple grounds of Matsushima. The area is a small forest surrounded by stone walls embedded with several hollowed out crypts, carved into the rocks thousands of years ago. We strolled among the beautiful trees in quiet reverence and made our way to a scenic look-out high in the neighborhood for a view of the ocean from above. Along the steep path to the top I saw a hilarious cartoon sign of a child being dragged up the hill. Laughing at its oddity I snapped a picture, but on the way down we encountered just such a child being dragged to the look-out. Poor little kid had no idea why some white lady was laughing her head off at him.

Japanese signage

Japanese signage

Next on our agenda was the island Fukuurajima, which is close to the shore and connected to Matsushima by a long foot bridge. According to the map, “the island itself is a natural garden covered with 300 kinds of trees and wild grasses, providing an atmosphere of complete bliss for roaming the island.” Complete bliss you say? Well sign me up! While en route, I proceeded to make many wise cracks about preparing myself for complete bliss, but upon arrival I found the tourist map statement hard to argue with. The island is indeed a stunning little wilderness frozen in time, boasting impressive pines and covered in camellia plants. Camellias are common to East Asia but they were a nice reminder of home. The Japanese word for camellia is tsubaki, so if any of you know my favorite Sacramento restaurant Hana Tsubaki, you now know it means “camellia flower.”

After achieving complete bliss on Fukuurajima, we headed inland to grab some souvenirs and a sashimi rice bowl, since Matsushima is also know for its super-fresh seafood. It was delicious, like everything in Japan, and then we hopped our train home via Sendai where we stopped at the import store to grab some necessities. Kraft Mac and Cheese and some chevre! Overall a wonderful day in a truly beautiful place.

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