Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'm no longer a Ryokan virgin!

I was tempted to just nix this entry and get onto all the blogs that are to come from my winter vacation... but it was way too cool of an experience not to write about.
Amongst all the winter/Christmas/holiday lesson prepping, planning and teaching I was doing, I squeezed in a little Christmas Enkai action with my fellow Gunma JETs. An enkai is party traditionally done with coworkers in some sort of celebration. I went to my middle school one after their Sports Day. Usually it entails a set meal at an isakaya (traditional Japanese restaurant) and nomihodai (all you can drink for a set amount of time; usually 2 hours). This enkai was that and so much more. It was held at a Ryokan (Japanese style inn) in Gunma on Lake Haruna. Lake Haruna is actually a crater from an old volcano at the top of Mt. Haruna (aptly titled). It was perty, but I'm really looking forward to seeing it in spring or fall when there are colors around the lake and I can do some hiking.
We got there (fashionably) late, but with enough time to unpack everything in our room. Here I am checking out that sweet night view that doesn't really exist.
Tomomi, Shyooma, Alex and Laurel were my roomies. The room was huge and really nice. You can see the futons (Japanese beds) on the floor that were super comfy. The best part of the room was probably the dominant heating system it had that brought me to sweats in the middle of the night... it felt fannntastic! But, the delicious manju (steamed buns with red beans inside) come in a close second for assets to the room.

This was the amazing dinner we had prepared for us upon arriving to the dining hall. It was already all laid out when we got there. Each person gets the same set to eat and helps themselves or each other (if we're going by proper Japanese rules, which we weren't) to all the drinks they want for exactly 2 hours (and I mean exactly!).
I can't remember exactly what everything was, but I'll try my bestest. From the left, there was the wooden container that had a heater underneath that boiled udon (Japanese noodles) and some meat and veggies in it in a nabe style. To the right of the nabe are vegetables (sweet potato, pumpkin, eggplant) served tempura (deep fried) style. You dip the tempura in the white powder (salt?) in front. The orange covered bowl to the right had a miso soup in it, I think. Underneath the miso soup is a platter with five dishes: a slice of pork with lemon, some kind of cooked and marinated fish, some kind of orangey fried ball, mini baked potatoes, and a small vegetable "salad" (no greens, just marinated bamboo and seaweed or something). Below that plate to the left are some pickled daikon and to the right are two more pickled somethings (the red and green thingers). The other red bowl with the blue top had an egg custard inside. Not my favorite. Above that was some amazing sashimi (raw fish).

Traditionally, you all kampai (toast) and eat at the same time and have random seating... but since we're gaijin (foreigners) and most people were late, we got the show on the road at separate times. This was the wonderful company at my table.

Two and a half hours after our expected start time, my other girls finally made it there to party. They got a "little" lost in the mountains, snow, and Christmas illuminations (light displays). Kamara made it all better by bringing us all sweet Hello Kitty glasses to drink out of.

A close up of Gopika and that delicious udon nabe I spoke of before.
Next up on the Enkai agenda, rushed as it was, was the Christmas Secret Santa exchange. They were going two by two until the end when it was "Okay, whoever's left - come on up!" I was quite proud of my 10-in-1 sports center game I found at the second store meeting the "under $10 limit" jusssssssst barely. My predecessor's boyfriend, Aaron, was the proud recipient. I got some wine glasses and green tea from Tomomi.

Shyooma got Aaron's gift: candy cigarettes, candy junk food and condoms! Good thing he was much more interested in the bag. While the rest of us were laughing uncontrollably, Aaron felt really bad, not knowing a baby would be on the guest list. You know there's gonna be a day too, when Shyooma asks his mom, Tomomi, what his first Christmas present was... I vote she goes with "a paper coffee bag"... she can show him this picture.
I know it's hard to imagine a world in which Japanese students learned without my presence, but it did exist. This is my predecessor, Amber, to prove it. I love her because she is an Aussie and because she showed me the sweet gelato place within walking distance from my house.

With the little time left in the 2 hours before getting kicked out, we karaoke-d. Sing along if you know the song we're singing. Eddie Butts in the house (or, Ryokan I guess).

After karaoking, we got to use the amazing indoor onsen. Well, I don't really know if it can be considered an onsen because it wasn't a "natural" hot spring, I don't think. But it was a spa with sulphur baths indoor and outdoor. I insisted that we play "never have I ever" for hours on end before pruning up and crawling into my futon. I even woke up with a yukata (the blue and white robes you saw everyone but me wearing before, because I felt really weird in it) on.
In the morning we had a continental breakfast (which again, we were fashionably late for) and the girls babysat Shyooma while we ate. This is how we found him.
My buddies, Kamara, Brooke, and Gopika in front of Lake Haruna.
This was a lookout point on Mt. Haruna on the way back home. You can see most of Gunma below and Mt. Akagi in the distance.
Tomomi wanted to make a quick stop at this cute little paper and cloth arts and crafts store on the way back to get some presents for friends. There was a table with free stuff outside which made it awesome before I even walked in.

After the free stuff and looking at all the amazing cloth lantern displays, we sat down to some uze (like a lemon, but not) tea. I found a tea I like! To our surprise, a few camera guys rolled in and the employees started setting up for mochi hana (mochi = Japanese sweets made of rice that has been pounded, sweetened and molded; hana = flowers) making! Apparently a local TV station wanted a clip of it. The store was looking for participants, so Tomomi, Laurel and I jumped right in! I can't say mine was particularly pretty, but I was proud of it because it took for-ev-er. When I was done, the employees took mine and gave me a new one. It was smaller and not mine... I was kinda bummed. They were selling ones they made for over 20 bucks, so I wondered if I had just got conned into mochi hana labor. Regardless, it was totally fun and made a great souvenir from a great weekend.

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