Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Onsen = natural hot spring = awesome

After our early rise and hike at Shiga-san, we were ready for some maxin' and relaxing. Conveniently, we were near Kusatsu, a city renown throughout Gunma and Japan for it's large volumes of high quality hot springs. Apparently, a dip in these hot springs (onsen) cure every illness but lovesickness. The town's 1200m above seal level and surrounded by mountains (like the one we hiked)! I normally hate really 'touristy' places, but this town was super cute and homey (in a Japanese meets Germany homey kind of way), touristy as it may be.

This is the major attraction of the town: Yubatake (field of hot water). The spring's water comes here before it is divided among the many onsens in the town.Here's a view from above as the steaming water moves down.

Tomomi and Yoshii wash their hands in the warm cleansing water. I bet Shooma was jealous... or sleeping.

A spa in the middle of town where people can relax... with their feet in warm onsen water.

Sulpher does a body good... but smells like crap! There was a sign saying that Kusatsu is one of Japan's "100 places of peculiar smell".

This couple was SOOOO CUTE! And they gave us free onsen-manjyu (one of many types of Japanese sweets), a freshly and naturally hot steamed bun filled with zesty bean jam!

Mmm - Laurel had a sweet pea and sweet bean paste manjyu, Alex is holding the water chestnut bun and red sweet bean jam, and mine was a sweet bean outside and water chestnut inside. We did a swapparo and surprisingly, the green pea was my fav! Who'd a thunk peas could be this delicious? I also continue to get green tea EVERYWHERE (work, supermarkets, restaurants, seriously everywhere) and I STILL loathe it... I thought I'd become accustomed to the taste... not so much. My coworkers are genuinely stumped as to WHY I don't drink it... they are genuinely stumped by the concept that I just don't like the taste, so I usually end up drinking it in spite.

There was an area where 7 different onsen were together. This was the sign for the one called "The Devil's Kettle"

Somehow, we became ghosts at the Devil's Kettle. Ironic? Or maybe Alex's sweet photo skills.

These are little jizou. They're statues of monks who have achieved enlightenment. When it starts getting colder out, it is considered polite to put hats and/or scarves on the lil guys out of respect to keep them warm.

Along the paths, we found some symbolic rocks stacks. This marks it as a place that provides a gateway to the spiritual world.

After walking around Kusatsu, I finally had my first onsen bathing experience. All are gender segregated and most are public. Public baths are very common in Japan... and really, many countries in the world and throughout history (Roman Empire, baby!).

The routine goes: get naked in changing room, forget the towel and walk into the showering area unreserved. Take your time showering (sitting on a stool and using the detachable shower head) while ya yuk it up with friends while cleansin'. Then, go have a nice relaxing dip in the warm onsen water. Each onsen has different levels of minerals and elements in them. Usually you just stay in one until you're good and pruny and then get out, rinse off again, and leave. BUT, at our onsen, there was a special kind that had 5 different "pools" of water which were each different temperatures and mineral compositions. You were meant to spend a certain amount of time in each "pool", then move on. Follow this routine for ultimate healing powers!!! I don't know if I got everything cured, but I sure felt nice and relaxed after the experience. Say goodbye to modesty before your trip over here people, cuz we're going to an onsen!

*Sorry no pictures here, what with all the nakedness.

Monday, October 29, 2007

I heart Hiking

Fall in Gunma is just as wonderful as in Wisconsin, minus the football and Madison Halloween festivities. Probably my favorite part of fall is the ideal weather and beautiful colors of the changing leaves. Hiking in the fall is great anywhere, but our trek on Shiga-san (on Mount Shirane) in northern Gunma was truly fannnnnnnntastic.

A few JET friends I have basically inherited the friendship of a wonderful Japanese family from their predecessors (JET’s whose jobs and apartment they took over). They offered to take us with them on the trip (about a two hour drive north), and we gladly accepted.

It was an early mornin' start (7am), but it was worth it. Again, not sure if it was the weariness of the morning or what, but in addition to rice paddies, I also have a new found interest in wind power. This was a lone soldier we saw on the drive there.
We're getting closer! This was a pull off we made on the side as we were driving up the mountain. Alex is an amazing photographer and most of the pictures from this blog are from him! Yes, I found somebody who deserves the title of paparazzi WAY more than me. Thanks, Alex! He streamed a bunch together to make this panoramic shot.

Awwww, look at the happy family photo! Laurel & Alex (JET married couple from Boulder, CO who are awesome), me, and our Japanese baby (?), Shooma. This kid, and his hair, are awesome as well. And yes, it's like that all the time.
Getting closer....

Using a ski lift to kill some time.
Before we started the hike, we saw this sign. It says, "beware of bears". I was kind of disappointed we didn't see any. It was probably due to the hundreds of other hikers wearing obnoxious bear bells on their boots.
There are those colors I've been waiting for!

Perty lake
The whole crew: Tomomi, me, Yoshii, (Shooma's in his 'lil back pack),Laurel and Alex.

Not that I can read maps or anything... but for those who can:
Laurel and I lead the pack.

That path looks way smaller now.
We made it to the peak! I'm yelling something in Japanese in celebration of this feat... unfortunately, I can't remember what. An example of why my language learning is going so slow... oh, information retention difficulties.
I think Alex put his huge fancy camera on "uber blue" mode, because it definitely wasn't that color through my specs. Regardless, this picture looks sweet, so it's here.
And another family photo for the Christmas cards.
The hike started out pretty flat and it was more like a, "walk, and wait for Alex to move his tripod for 5 minutes" stroll than a hike for the first couple hours. But after lunch, it was more mountainous and tough. I still can't believe Yoshii carried Shooma on his back the entire trek. I kept offering to take a turn, but he said he'd rather carry Shooma than my big red bag. Everyone thinks I've got bricks in there or something, but it seriously feels like a feather.
Thanks, sister, for the amazingly useful graduation present. I seriously take it everywhere with me! A student said they saw me biking the other day and they knew it was me because of my red bag. Haha.
Alex making his way down... camera and tripod in hand:)

The bright, sun-shiny day turned misty and hazy in literally seconds. Luckily we were in the car by that point. Those little white patches right off the mountain in the distance are natural hot springs. Japan is, after all a volcanic island. More on hot springs to come in the next blog!

The vapors off those sweet hot springs AND fall colors... very cool.

Minakami... far from the Camp Minakami I went to for Preschool!

On October 6th, a bunch of friends and I headed up to a town called Minakami (about 1 1/2 hour train ride north of Maebashi). It was a gorgeous day, and this here coal powered train pulled up to the station platform. I don't know what was more amusing... the sweet coal powered train (which we didn't get to ride in), or the stampede of Japanese locals ready to snap 96 pictures of the train at the drop of a coin. I fit right in:)

We got to Minakami Station with 30 minutes to spare before our bus pick-up and walk out to the sun shining and a group of local taiko drummers! What an awesome surprise. I think they might have been more surprised to have a fan base of 30 geijin (foreigners) watching them.
I have a whole new appreciation for the taiko arcade game now.

Okay, so then we get picked up by a big 'ol bus which winds up and down the mountains some more before getting to our destination: Canyons. Canyons is a Kiwi (New Zealand folks) run company which specializes in adventure activities around the area. Our adrenaline rush of the weekend came via "canyoning", which can't be explained as well as just experienced... or shown via photos. I.e. see below!
Since camera's weren't allowed on actual course (which was a "beginner" course by the way), I had to get one last snap in before the run. Full body wetsuits and moonboots take AGES to put on, in case you were wondering.

Here's our whole Gunma crew before we hit the rapids. Can you find me?

We sloshed around in the water a bit to get used to the water, had one "mini" drop, and then it was down THIS! You're roped in on this one, so you kinda of just slide down really fast with water pounding all over you. Crazy feeling!
They were charging $8 for a digital picture of me from this view... so, needless to say, you're just gonna have to 'envision' my face instead of hers at the top of this drop. If it helps, I was smiling much bigger and cornier and I didn't skimp on the thumbs - two of 'em up!
Only a few people did this drop, because you had to be able to do a pull up on the bar to show that you could grasp the bar when they pull the seat out from under ya so you're not falling the 200 m down on your side, or face, or something other than your feet to take the impact. It was intense, to say the least.

There were lots of these thingers, where you could opt to slide, jump, do a flip, dive, go backwards, etc etc into what is apparently and endless hole. I went classic sliding and jumping style without enough guts for flipping or backwards entry. I never could get those down on the diving board or raft, so I'm thinking slippery and jagged rocks wouldn't be the best place to mess up my form.

The was an all night Full Moon Party that night (I was very disappointed to find out there actually was no full moon and instead lots of techno music and glow sticks).
The next morning I was disappointed to find out there was no continental breakfast at our lodging. Then I was excited, because I heard there were banana pancakes! Then I was disappointed, because they were $8. Then I was excited, because there was ice cream on them! Then I was disappointed, because there were no bananas (or chocolate chips) in the actual pancake. All in all, I decided nothing can top our pre-game chocolate chip banana pancakes... but, ice cream is an ingenious addition (note to the ladies of N. Mills Street!).

Our weary state on the train ride back to Maebashi led us to have like, a 30 minute conversation about rice fields. We also talked about a ridiculous sign we saw for 30 minutes, but I realized I was more interested in rice paddies and farming that I ever thought I would be in my life. This is pic of the rice after it's been picked and is hanging out to dry.
Wanna see that ridiculous sign? You'll have to wait... I'm holding off until I have a stock of 'em to post all at one time... oh, the Engrish signs make me giggle. Until then...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Soccer/Footie/Football Tourney

I don’t play soccer. I was never on the ‘Lil Kickers or referred to as “The Brick Wall” because of my awesome goalie skills. I’ve never played a day of organized soccer in my life. So why would I sign up to play this unfamiliar sport for two days straight? Because, there were 26 other Gunma soccer players and supporters and almost 1000 other soccer players and supporters from around the eastern half of Japan all signed up for the same competitive but friendly connection amongst ALTs and our Japanese comrades.

Before the big tournament in Nagano, we had a few practices in Kiryuu, Gunma (not far from me in Maebashi).

Namely, I just sat on the side, watching the mad skills of the Brits, like Tom.

On Sept 29th, we headed out from Maebashi, Gunma to the tourney in Nagano Prefecture. It was an expected two hour drive, so we had a meeting time of 5:30am, waited an hour for Claudio to get out of bed, then hit the road. It was cool because we were like driving into the mystic of Nagano. It wasn't cool, because it was 6:30am.

But, we finally made it there JUST in the knick of time (literally at the boys 9:00am kickoff time). These are two of our amazing supporters, Kamo and Tomomi. You can see a bunch of ski runs in the backround... those were used in the '98 Winter Olympics that were held in Nagano. Sorry Katie, I didn't see any bobsled runs:)
This is the boys' "pitch" (it's a field... seriously; who calls it a pitch?) in Senai. Absolutely gorgeous, grade A "pitch".

Tom takes a half time break to rest and hold our #1 supporter, Shooma. Coolest hair, ever!Welcome to the girls' "pitches". Not quite as glamorous, but they got the job done! We had smaller fields, smaller teams, and shorter halves... hmmmm - how come we were still so tired? Oh, probably because we didn't have any subs, and only had a full team (6 players) 12 hours before we left. It ended up being amazing though and even though none of us had played before, we were all surprised at the skill that came out! Okay, so the skill didn't play out on the scoreboard or anything, but we definitely put up a good fight!

Yes, that is me wearing our "jerseys" (i.e. wear black!) and softball socks and running shoes. It was a pretty pricy weekend with the commute and lodging and food, so I was thrifty wherever possible. Don't worry though, I did splurge on shin guards, so that might have been the only part of my body not in pain on Monday.
I could run up and down the field like there's no tomorrow... I just couldn't put the ball in the goal! Actually, I did score our team's one and only goal of the 4 game weekend... I don't really know whether to be proud or ashamed of that though.

Our NEARLY unstopable defense! Ganbarre Erin!

The whole girls' team and our meager supporting crew after our first day of 3 losses. As you can see, we're still in good spirit!

The boys team represented as well, winning their first two but losing to the next two to veteran teams.

On Sunday, teams were seeded based on their performance in Saturdays games. It was single game elimination. Needless to say, we were out after our first game. However, we weren't too disappointed, because on top of the coldness and wind in high altitudes on Saturday, it decided to rain on Sunday to boot. Boys' lost their game too, just in time to come and miserably support us in the second half.

And just when we thought we'd get to head in to the wonderful warmth of the public baths and hot springs, Gunma's called to ref and line judge. Not knowing any soccer rules, I opted for line judging responsibilities. Brooke and I aren't the happiest, but at least we weren't wearing a plastic garbage bag like one woman. Thanks for the rain jacket, Mom and Dad - best departing gift EVER!