Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hiking in Ozegahara

I honestly felt like I was "turning Japanese" when I started talking about the fall foliage in summer, planning weekend trips around where the fall colors are best and checking the on-line 'autumn leaf special' obsessively. Spring brings the cherry blossom season in Japan, which I think is the most anticipated and widely symbolic event in Japan, but hiking in the Fall colors is definitely Top 3 in Japan for me.
A couple weeks ago, I went hiking and camping in Oze-gahara. It's a quasi-national marshland park which is technically part of Gunma, Nikko, and Fukushima prefectures. It's famous across Japan for it's size, preservation, and altitude (1400 m). There are trails that you can hike year round within the park, but it is most famous for it's skunk cabbage flowers in the summer and autumn foliage.
I was planning on heading up with Alex and Laurel, but unfortunately Laurel just could not kick the sickies from soccer weekend. The weather was gorgeous, it was a three day weekend, and I knew the colors wouldn't last - so I went solo.
These were my hiking buddies for the first leg the first day. They (along with everyone else I passed) were very surprised I was alone (as concluded by their remarks of, 'eeeehhhhhhh!?!?!?!'). It's a marshland, so it's relatively flat. More exhausting than the hike is saying "Konnichiwa" to all of the 294,281 other tourists you pass. There are some fun ups and downs and more challenging hikes into the mountains if you have the time and energy and want to go up and down the same trail, but I hate hiking the same path twice, so I started at one bus drop point and ended at another, stopping about half way to camp overnight.

That's Mt. Fuji in the way far silhouetted background.

Getting a snap with my girls before parting ways. And yeah... I carried my tent and sleeping bag the entire 4 1/2 hours to camp, and 5 hours back. I figured out on the second day I could rig up the tent to my backpack... a learning experience for sure.

My tent (just for me) is the one on the right. The tent on the left slept two people.
The wooden planks line the majority of the huge national park. It's so incredibly well preserved and immaculately clean... US National Parks: take note!

Lake Oze at dusk.

I woke up the next morning with ice... yes, ICE on my tent. It was in the 70's for hiking the day before. I knew it would be cold at night, but I didn't think THAT cold. Taking down the tent without gloves was painful. I was up with the sunrise around 6am though, and hiking again long after sitting by the lodge heater to de-thaw.
Morning freeze drops

Day two hiking buddies! They live in my neighboring city.

Tourism in Japan... gotta love it.
It's over an hour drive back to the station from the trail head, but the drive is beautiful. It's located in the city of Numata, which is very touristy. There were tons of tourist shops and signs for hotels and onsen. Cool vibe, though. I was hoping there'd be goats on this roof, but no dice.

ALT Soccer Tournament in Nagano

The All-Japan ALT Soccer Tourney in Nagano last October was such a blast, I knew had to go back for year two. The anticipated fun was met, AND exceeded! The newbies were initiated properly and brought their A day and night game.

This year, the girls' team not only got to play on 'real' fields, we actually had enough players for subs, there wasn't a drop of rain, and we got to stay for the included curry and rice lunch on Sunday. All in all, a total success.

An expected 6am departure of course means be left around 7am. Got to the fields just in time for the boys to play their first game of four on Saturday.
(above picture taken by Cynthia Leon)
Our fields were next to each other this time, so we actually got to support our Gunma males... and they got to nap for our games.
I don't know about everyone else, but I don't know the first thing about soccer. I look like a confused sprinter dropped in the middle of a soccer pitch who wants to play for both teams but never really does anything productive. Although there were much more informed and skilled players on the team, we did end up losing three games and tying one by the end of Saturday.
Our spirits were still up on Sunday and our support was incredible.
Aaaahhhh, what do I do now?
Kick it back to Laurel! Look at those legs!!!
(above picture taken by Symerna Blake)
We lost. It was single elimination. But we got a mannnnnnnnnnn tunnel!
Still smiling.
And line judging, as that is the losing team's responsibility.

Back to support the boys' in their final game on Sunday. They made it to the loser's bracket championship... they lost in an intense shoot out.

The gorgeous field.
And gorgeous women to match it! Brooke, me, Helen, and Kristine.

Gunma represents!

I just want to bang on me drum all day

I've been practicing karate for the past year. I absolutely loved my karate-sensei (teacher) and the other old guys (from mid 40's to mid 60's) in my class. They had hearts of gold and were a pleasure to be around. I have learned a lot and enjoyed it, but it's definitely time for a change. I think I gave the patience thing a good run for the past year and can most definitely appreciate the skill and technique of karate and other martial arts; but, it's not for me. Three plus hours of stretching and striking techniques... well, my mind wandered a lot during those practices.
SO, I've been looking into new fun activities. I've been attempting a few new classes at my gym. The one that's been the most fun is an LA hip-hop class. Despite the 50 year old ripped woman that can pop it and lock it better than I EVER will, it's pretty cool. I am generally confused the entire time, but when a short routine comes together in the final minutes, it looks and feels really cool.
I also went to a local group's taiko class earlier in the month. Taiko is the name for a Japanese drum. The size, shape, and designs on a taiko vary between regions, but the basic percussion style and form is very similar. And, as I found out, very precise. Anyway, they were kind enough to let us watch them practice and even hop in on the drums for awhile. The beats, rhythms and motions are so... catchy! You just feel it in your whole body. Even though I felt it while watching the masters drum away, I'm pretty sure what was going on in my head did not translate to what was going on with my hands. I sounded and looked pretty awful, but it was fun. Think I can become a taiko master within the next 9 months?

Me, Dean, and Dario.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My Kids are CUUUUUTTTEE!!! Wakamiya Sports Festival

Every elementary school across Japan has an annual Sports Festival in August. From what I gather, they spend almost the entire first semester preparing for it. The whole school is involved and it's pretty sweet. There are games, races, choreographed dances, and singing. In Maebashi, there are three or four teams. Each team is named after a major mountain: Myogi, Haruna, Akagi, or Asama.

Here, Myogi is planning and practicing their dance routine.

The school grounds are meticulously groomed and prepped before the event. I had the pleasure of joining them during weed picking time.

The day has come! There was a 90% chance of rain and a typhoon predicted for this Saturday. As you can see, it all worked out.
Everyone gather in army like formation for the commencement of the event.

After the flag procession, proper row and column checks, and all the important people have been introduced, it's time to stretch!
Next up: school song.

And they're off!
One of the many glorious choreographed dances.

Ni-nensei (second grade) waiting to enter the arena.

Not before attempting to be as stylish as I am, of course.
Ryoku-nensei (6th grade) students.

Ichi-nensei (1st grade) student so proud of getting third place in his race!

A student from each team ran out as a 'clown' after the races to show everyone the point totals... Myogi's in the lead!

Let the games begin: check out the colored caps on their heads.
The object of this game was to grab those caps off the other teams heads. Crazy.

Watch this video for another, equally entertaining game somebody devised. I have no idea how this really originated, but I can imagine a bunch of exhausted teachers, sitting around, thinking up these games late one night back during the war period. They needed something so ridiculous that everyone would smile and laugh during such trying times. What they didn't know is that generations and generations to follow would be playing the same ridiculous games.