Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Fam Does Japan: Day 2 in Kusatsu and a final goodbye

Breakfast is served!
The last full day we had together in Japan, we went up Mt. Shirane. We had to take a bus to get there. Ohhhh, buses on windy roads - the fun is never ending!

This is Yugama, one of three crater lakes on the summit of Shirane-san (a dormant volcano). It's hard to tell on this cloudy/foggy day, but the water is usually a milky green color. The pH is 1.2 and is the most acidic in the world.
Onto our hike. Again, perhaps not the "intended" one the entire time, but incredibly cool. There were crazy craters, snow, flowers, grass, trees, everything.

Yeah, Dad's holding a snowball. He thought he'd be slick and throw it at us... too bad his aim is so inaccurate:) Next time, Dad. Next time.

On another side of the mountain, and after we had some warm beverages and got me a sweet fleece, we checked out Yumiike Pond.
Yuumike Pond Area Scan:

More 'exclusive' video footage!

We took the last bus back to town, and had some time to meander around a bit. I found my future home... I just have to kick out the owners, remove any large and unnecessary restaurant appliances, and hire a full time window washer.

We also checked out the Kousenji Temple.

That night, Austin and Dad were in the mood for food. So we opted not to have the big fancy ryokan meal, and instead try our luck at a local izekaya. Turns out both of the two izekayas we had spotted earlier close by 6pm on a Friday night. So we ended up at a little Italian restaurant instead. I was a little bummed the fam was eating Italian for their last meal in Japan, but they were far from bothered. We all really liked the food, and we had a commanding view of the yubatake and city center. There were alot more tourists in the area for the weekend, and we could just people watch. It was really special actually, to be kicking back with the fam in our yukata, over dinner, taking the town all in. ANNNDDD, to top it off - ice cream and canned cocktails for dessert! Yesssss!

NOTE: This is the long boring monologue about leaving the family which probably only my Mom will really appreciate - don't torture yourself by reading it!
The next morning, I headed back to Maebashi and sent the fam on yet another bus to the airport. I hope it's obvious from the previous posts how amazing a time I had with my family here. I felt so great sharing my life and some of the wonderful or even mundane experiences I have here, everyday. I also had the opportunity to go to many new places and make memories there with my loved ones.
Mom and Dad have been a huge reason (cause?) I have always been so interested in traveling. We traveled a lot and I am so grateful for those early experiences I had with them. Well, most of them. I can still remember a road trip we took when I was like 8 years old, to South Dakota. We were probably on hour 12 of 14 of the trip, and I wanted nothing more than to play my Gameboy. The cornfields were starting to blur, and I was quickly becoming the Tetris master. But my Mom insisted (by removing my Gameboy from my hands and forcing me to look out the window) that I appreciate the scenery around me. I was beyond upset at the time, but I understand her point now (even if I would've gone about encouraging this appreciation a bit differently). I appreciate all the public transportation available here and the chance to relax and take it all in during those long commutes. Japan is an amazing country geographically and otherwise and it was amazing to see so much more of it's beauty.
I felt extremely grateful that I was able to spend as much time as I could with them. But, that last day was pretty rough for me. I did a lot of staring out the window, but not because I was 'taking in' the scenery. I kept thinking about the fact that I wouldn't get to see, hug, kiss, travel, cook, play, eat, or be with them for at least one more year. We'd made it 10 months, and surprisingly the connection once we saw each other again was totally intact. So, I knew it would be possible... but, I was still sad. I will most definitely miss you guys, in physical presence, but I know we'll be good. Thank you so much for making the time and effort to come and make yourselves as vulnerable and incompetent as I am in this 'foreign land'. I loved every minute of it, and will treasure those memories, always.

The Fam Does Japan: Day 1 in Kusatsu

After Maebashi, it was time to do a tourist trip to one of Japan's most famous onsen towns, Kusatsu. Lucky for us, it's located right in my prefecture. I've been here during the day before, and absolutely loved it. To do it properly though, you really need to have an overnight stay at a ryokan.
So, here I am at the entrance to our ryokan. Again, the entire staff was waiting for our arrival, immediately took all our belongings, and had tea and sweets set out for us in our room.
We got there pretty early in the day, so we had time to check out the city center and attempt to go on one of the hikes I had researched. Here we are in front of the yubatake (the source of the hot spring). All the spas and ryokan in the area use the natural hot water that comes from this source: it's the most in Japan at 4,000L of hot water per minute. It's said to cure everything but love sickness, but I cannot confirm nor deny this claim. They even have a special way of cooling the water, called yumomi. Apparently over the years many celebrities have visited the area (3 million tourists come here per year), 100 of which got to have their names carved on a stone parapet which lines the yubatake. Oh yeah, and it smells AWESOME!

While Kusatsu is not famous for convenience store hot dogs on a stick, Dad and Austin thought they were a must have and pretty delicious. Considering they wouldn't be eating much of the dinner or breakfast there, I think it was a good call.

Walking through Sai No Kawara Park.

Then we embarked on attempting to find yet another one of my awesome hikes I'd researched. Despite how great any of the English information appears to be on different cities websites, they never seem to be quite as accurate as expected. We ended up asking some random people for help, and I still don't know if we ended up where we were intending to go, but the hike we found was one of my favorites in Japan. The misty weather and the crazy natural hot springs everywhere made it really unique.

This is where I insisted we go through the locked gate and make our own fun adventure. Then I realized I didn't really want to be nauseous or unconscious from sulphur poisoning, so we turned back.

Dinner at the ryokan that night once again had absolutely immaculate presentation. The first set especially looked incredibly labor intensive and was the most tasty in my opinion. The white asparagus with some kind of green sauce was great!
Dad and Mom trying to figure out how to unroll and eat the sushi in a banana leaf.

The starter was great, but it slowly went downhill from there. There were some unique dishes I had never had or seen before and was excited for... but overall, they were all really, really bland.
This soup was... unique. I still cannot figure out with the thin film around the mini mushrooms was. Intriguing, but not delicious.
The baked fish was okay... just, okay. And the steamed vegetables and octopus, also just okay.

I usually love eel, but this combo with rice and cream sauce was not a good one.
Pickled vegetables (can't ever really go wrong), tempura, rice, and a miso soup that I thought couldn't go wrong, but did here.
Dessert was a saving grace and palate cleanser to the disappointing meal prior.
After dinner, we took a stroll around the city at night. Kusatsu is really unique during the day because of German influenced architecture and the whole onsen city vibe, but at night, it takes on a whole new atmosphere. It's really cool. On our way out of the ryokan, we decided to take this really corny family picture in the entrance way. It felt like one of those old fashioned Western photo shops up in the Dells... not that we ever did that before, but what I imagine it would feel like to dress up and take pictures in the corny set-ups. Except, this was real... kind of.
Austin's sandals didn't quite fit him. Apparently not too many Japanese have size 13 feet!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Fam Does Japan: Maebashi (my stompin' grounds)

We rolled into the 'Bash right in time to check into the hotel and see the sun set from the prefectural government building in the center of my "hometown".
There she is: Maebashi in all her glory. The city of Greenery, Water, and Poetry... or so the international tourism board says.
That night for dinner, I really wanted to take the fam to a cute little Mom and Pop owned and run Thai restaurant. Great food, beer, and atmosphere. BUT, they are apparently closed at their own convenience as of late. So, for whatever reason, a nearby okonomiyaki restaurant a friend had mentioned in passing last September popped into my head. I had never been there, but the fam had yet to try a staple Japanese food, okonomiyaki (despite their attempts in Hiroshima and Osaka). It was the best decision on a whim I had ever made I think.
Okonomiyaki is (in case you haven't kept up with my previous blogs and do not know!) a Japanese style savory potato pancake. The name translates roughly to 'grilled as you like it', so the ingredients vary from person to person, place to place. However, the batter is generally the same with an egg, sticky mountain yam, flour, and cabbage. Ingredients can include yakisoba (fried noodles), meat, seafood, mochi, vegetables and toppings are usually thin bonito flakes (which 'dance' on the heat), seaweed powder, okonomiyaki sauce, and mayonnaise.
The joint was on the 2nd floor of a very small building. The interior decorating was unique (to say the least) and there were little quirks left and right. I of course could not read the menu, or even really talk to the one and only owner/waitress in the place, but she was incredibly helpful in attempting to decipher it. We ended up getting a different kind of okonomiyaki each (which was WAY too much!), so we could all mix and fry up or own and sample everyone's at the same time. Here's the beef and mochi one.
The next step is to mix all the ingredients together. First, she demonstrated for us, making it look as easy as stirring chocolate powder in to milk. It was not that easy.
We made fun of Dad's stirring abilities the most, but his pouring skills get an A+!
Alllllmost ready: the okonomiyaki sauce has been spread in the perfectly clockwise circular direction and the bonito flakes have been placed exactly on half the pancake (some were opposed to fish flakes), the pancake has been cut into 8 equal pieces, and Dad is sampling it before anyone else. That's the sign that it's time to eat!

The next day was familial school visit day, so we started off at my 'base school' (middle school). This is me at my desk in the teacher's office. All schools have a communal teacher's office where teachers spend the 10 minutes in between classes, lunch time (if they don't have a homeroom to be in), and after school until 10pm-ish grading, prepping and planning.
First grade students in middle school (equivalent to 7th grade in the US).
My rowdy, misbehaved, entertaining second graders. There were two girls in this class that absolutely LOVED my Mom. They asked her a ton of incoherent questions and proceeded to shout "MOTHER... BEAUTIFUL" throughout the class... and the week to follow. I was very appreciative of their enthusiasm. And actually, there were a lot of students in the class I could tell were interacting with my Dad and brother that I very rarely see voluntarily participate in regular classes. Thanks again for subjecting yourself to the awkwardness that is my job, guys! They loved it!
Next us was a visit to one of my elementary schools. We visited a classroom that had been practicing their "interview questions" all semester. Students 'volunteered' (pretty sure the teacher arranged who would volunteer when ahead of time) to ask us questions as we sat in front. I think this picture might have been taken after a student asked, "Excuse me, Brother: What is your favorite animal?" To which he replied, "My favorite animal is a liger"... just kidding, but it'd be pretty awesome if he did, wouldn't it? I don't actually know what was so funny right there.

Next, we played a rousing game of karuta (read: pictures on cards, say word, students slap matching picture, fun ensues).
A group shot with one of the 6th grade classes at this school. Yes, there's another class, equally as large, with only one teacher.
That afternoon, we had some time to check out "the sites" in Maebashi... which include my apartment and two parks. The end. That's Maebashi Park below, and the pond is in the shape of our prefecture, which impresses me every time. Oh, and in the background is The Green Dome, which I have never actually been to.
That night I arranged for my Maebashi crew to meet us out at our favorite foreigner gathering restaurant: Mahatmas. It's Indian, and it's delicious. Even the critical tongues of Dad and Austin approved (or at least they said they did).
I also give Shyooma his birthday present; a panda bear bib and stuffed animal from Yokohama. He decided to play his new game of "throw the object handed to me on the floor so the adult has to pick it up" game, which I obliged to continuously. He thought this was HILL-ARIOUS!
The whole Maebashi crew!

The Fam Does Japan: Nikko Take 2

On our last day in Nikko, we got in some more hiking/light walking in to see some waterfalls and the Senjogahara Plateau.

Aww, Mom and I at the second tier of Ryuzu Falls (which means head of the dragon).

Yes! Following a trail I scouted out that actually exists!
Making it into the Senjogahara Plateau clearing for the gorgeous views seen below. Especially that of Austin's butt. Nice contrast to the mountains and trees in the surroundings.