Friday, April 24, 2009

It's Miller Time in Japan: Part 5: Volcano? Check!

Kristin loves volcanoes. I don't know exactly when or how the obsession started , but it's pretty full blown and I knew how important it was to her to see a volcano during this trip. Japan is situated along the circum-Pacific volcanic belt, so in addition to me living here (obviously the most important draw) the existence of 1/10 of the world's 840 active volcanoes was a sweet bonus.

Lucky for us, the active Mt. Asama is in Gunma. It's one of the most active volcanoes in Japan and just erupted in February! It was a big enough eruption that the entire mountain and several km surrounding area was closed off. The first eruption though was on May 9, 1783. It was a huge eruption and lava and volcanic ashes sprayed everywhere. The result was like an avalanche and the debris gathered surface water and transformed into a hot mud flow. The lava that cooled down formed Onioshidashi, the park that we went to check out.

"Oni" means devil. Awww, Kristin, you 'lil devil, you!

Ring my belllll, lllllllllll, lllllllllll, ring my bell!

Mt. Asama in all her glory!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It's Miller Time in Japan: Part 4: My Maebashi

Kristin's only requests for this trip were 1)seeing me (check!) 2) seeing big buildings in Tokyo (check!) 3) seeing my 'hometown' and schools (wait for it) 4) and seeing a volcano (wait for it!).
Since I'm extremely proud of where I live in Maebashi and all the people in it I wasn't bashful about taking Kristin anywhere and everywhere for show and tell.
One afternoon we took a nice bike ride along the Tone river, and I FINALLY got to play in this park that I've wanted to, but hadn't because I didn't want to be that creepy adult stranger talking to small sweaty children.

For dinner, going along with the "Kristin's firsts" theme, we went to Mahatma's Indian restaurant, my favorite in Maebashi. Where the nan comes hot and as big as your head!

The next day I took her to two of the schools I teach at for show and tell. The kids LOVED her and she was super entertaining. At least one student in each class asked, "How tall are you?" Sorry I don't have more pictures... I was too busy teaching. This is the teacher's room in my base school below.

That night we went to the student's home I tutor (sorry, no pictures) and then karate class. It was really cool to be doing a sport again with my 'ol tennis doubles partner and basketball mentor. A lot of karate is stretching and muscle memorization, which came really natural to her. I was amazed that she picked up on techniques that took me months to learn so quickly.

Kristin's first: okonomiyaki experience. I think I've written about okonomiyaki a million and one times on here, but in case this is the first time you're reading: okonomiyaki is a type of Japanese savory potato pancake. Sounds bizarre. Looks bizarre. Tastes delicious. I could tell she was scared... real scared. But, that didn't stop her from trying and liking? a Japanese comfort food so close to my heart.

We could order it alright, but we left the mixing and pouring up the professionals! Oh man, I love the owners here. They opened up on their day off, jussst for us.
Also, it was a mini surprise birthday for Kristin, since her b-day was in less than a week. Happy Birthday with a German chocolate and strawberry cake!
Everyone came out to celebrate!
Even my bestest friends, Tomomi and Shyooma:)

This is Mrs. Ohtani, my best 80 year old friend, ever! And like everyone that meets her, these two really hit it off.
Post Japanese okonomiyaki dinner we had to add another first with Japanese karaoke!

The boys starting it off right with some Queen. Classic.

I don't know about Kristin, but this had to be a highlight of the trip for me. So many of my best memories with her are from us going out and singing and dancing (neither of which I do well, but which she dominates). This brought it all back but in the Japanese realm. So much fun!

Oh, it shan't be long until the singing, drinking, and dancing is had again by many (with the help of the Eddie Butts Band!!!) at the Seidemann wedding of '09. I'm already counting down the days!

It's Miller Time in Japan: Part 3: Kamakura

Back in 1192, Kamakura was the political center of Japan. That lasted for a mere century before it's decline, after which the rule moved to Kyoto. Because of that history and the many shrines and temples that still remain, Kamakura is often refereed to as the Kyoto of Eastern Japan. I don't really think the two compare at all, and for me it's just a great day trip from Tokyo. So, day tripping was done.

I've been to Kamakura before, but I had never been to Hase-dera. Definitely glad we swung through this time.

Kristin got to see her first sakura (cherry blossom tree) in bloom.

The garden was spectacular. Flowers never cease to amaze me, with their brilliant colors and innumerable symmetry patterns.
LOVE my new camera's panoramic mode. It's hit or miss with how the 3 stringed pictures come together, but I think this one turned out great. This is Hase-dera's garden.

Kristin took the time to write a little something on a votive board in honor of her cousin's daughter, Chloe.
This is the inside of Benten-kutsu cave, which was pretty sweet. Benzaiten (statue of a sea goddess with eight arms) and her 16 children are chiseled out of the rock walls.
There are also tons of small little statues placed throughout the cave, which I didn't really understand.
The many jizo comfort the souls of unborn children.

Another sweet panoramic on the second level of the complex.

View of the Kamakura coast in Kanagawa. I even caught this huge black crow in the picture, which was dive bombing at us the entire time. Believe it or not or not, there were actually a ton of surfers in the freezing coastal waters.

Also bad-ass.

Had to see the Big Buddha.

Budddha's got big 'ol feet (oh, yeah!)

We also went to Zeniarai Benten Shrine, a first for the both of us.

"Zeniarai" means coin washing, so the saying goes that by washing your money here, it will double! I think the Shinto gods got confused on my go, because after spending a week with Kristin and a week in Okinawa, my money was anything BUT doubled.

I don't know why koi are so entertaining, but they totally are. With their disproportionately big mouths agape and awkwardly small bulging eyes and fleshy whiskers... bizarrely awesome.

En route from Kamakura back to Maebashi for the night, we stopped and had a good 'ol traditional soba (buckwheat noodle) dinner.
And after all that sightseeing, Kristin took 'turning Japanese' to a whole new level on the trains. The vast majority of passengers fall asleep on the trains, but this... this is skill.

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's Miller Time in Japan: Part 2: Tokyo Marathon

I, love, running.

For the majority of my life, I hated it. It was always punishment for the sports I was involved in (ie. You're late? RUN 5 LAPS!!!), and the fact that I had sports induced asthma didn't help. I remember having a very very deep hatred for Storms (my freshman year basketball coach) when she decided running a mile before the occasional practice was a good idea. I was always last. Anyway, shortly after I started college, I no longer had regular sports practices and Madison happens to have amazingly gorgeous running/biking paths around campus. I decided to try this 'recreational running' thing out. I quickly became smitten and eventually fell in love. It just allows me a chance to clear my mind and the post run, endorphins flowing feeling is amazing. I (almost) always feel better after a good long run.
I participated in some short (5km) races in Madison, but pretty much only for the free food and experience. It was never about actually 'racing'. But, I realized I loved that too! Loved being around a gajillion (give or take) other people all excited and ready to run. About a year ago, I ran a half marathon in Annaka, Japan and it was one of the best experiences in my life.
I've always been amazed by people that had done a full 42.2 km run, but never thought I'd have the time, patience, or will power to train and do it myself. It had been in the back of my mind for a while though, so when a bunch of 1st year JETs decided they would fork over the $150 to sign up and train through the winter months Rocky style, I hopped on the band wagon.
18 weeks of training later, I was in the middle of Tokyo with 30,000 other people ready to pound the pavement. The training, by the way, really wasn't that tough. Since it was winter, I had hardly any other weekend plans to work around and could take the time needed to eat, rest, and recoop without missing out on too much other stuff. I didn't fall victim to any injuries and only had to battle with the wind, bitter cold, frozen snot face syndrome, and most difficult I think was trying to occupy my mind for 1-4 hours. The paths I chose were gorgeous, but it does get redundant and music can only take your mind off the fact that you're stilllllll running for so long. But, it was never like torture and almost always enjoyable. Plus I had a great support system here and at home. I don't know if I could have done it without Mom's amazing shipments of my self-selected, supremely picky, and hard to find nutrition and energy bars. Mmmm.

Nobody cares, this is boring, get to the BIG DAY! Alright, alright.

Kristin woke up extra early to show her support on race day. Nice!

Five other people from Gunma were running that I knew of (none of which were Japanese though, because they apparently have a 'lottery' which only foreigners get accepted through... lame). Cynthia was running the 10km, so we headed out together.

The course went ALL over Tokyo. We started off at the Tokyo Metropolitan buildings (arriving 5 minutes prior to check in time) and ran through the areas of Iidabashi, the Imperial Palace, Hibiya, Shinagawa, Ginza, Nihombashi, Asakusa, Tsukiji, Toyosu, and ended up at Tokyo Big Sight. 42.2 kilometers (26.6 miles, for us Americans) of pure big city gloriousness closed down for running.

It was a total rush from the start and just like the Annaka 1/2 marathon, the crowd's support really keeps you going. Having the entire city closed off just so I (and 299,999 other people) could run around it was an incredible feeling. It was really weird, but awesome, to see the city and so many of the landmarks and places I'd been before shopping, eating, clubbing, walking, from the viewpoint of a marathon runner. Really amazing.
Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures myself of the race, so I stole some from Helen.
I think she didn't really care about me as much as she did the awesome people in costumes.
I was scoping for my support crew pretty much the whole race... so much so that I even got a little headache just staring into the endless crowds and faces that lined the 42.2 km of people. I wasn't discouraged though and knew there must be SOME explanation (other than their going to breakfast, such was the case at the Annaka marathon). I was truckin' along just fine for about 35km, feeling good, feeling great. But around kilometer 37, I started to struggle a bit. It was raining and had gotten much colder, and I hadn't seen any of my friends. I felt like I was crawling... and then, as I turned a corner and began the final ascent (yes, uphill!!!) to the finish line, I heard my name being shouted! They didn't forget about me after all! The energy pumped back into my body and I even managed a little jig for the cameras. It felt soooo good!

I had this semi embarrassing moment after I passed the finish line where I started to tear up a little bit and took a little 'stretch' break to stand by the river and just thank God for providing me with a body that allows me to do all the physical activities I enjoy so much. I really respect my body (except sometimes when I forget to put sunscreen on and get sun poisoning and then my body hates me), and hope that by staying active and healthy now, I'll get to continue doing all those outdoor physical activities until I the day I die.
Inside Tokyo Big Sight, I got me this sweet medal, heaps of food, and got out of my now drenched clothes (from the rain of course).
Most pleasant surprise: hot foot baths!

These were my final times. Given my pretty constant times and the fact that I was grouped with the other G's from the start and we had to wait for all those before us to start up, I figure it took about 12 minutes until I passed the start line. That means, I finished in just over 4 hours. My goal was to finish without dying having run the entire time, so I was very happy to have a somewhat respectable time on top of that.

After that, I was reunited with all my awesome supporters.
They even made/reused signs for me:)

Ran into Simon (our local lepruchan who was signed up but didn't end up running due to 'injury') and Ronan (who finished in just over 5 hours, after having coffee for breakfast and no dinner the night before... oh, Ronan!) in the meet 'n' greet area.

So, am I gonna be the next Larry Macon and aim to run 105 marathons in a year? Absolutely not. But, Kristin and I did make a loose pact to meet up at least every 2 years to run a marathon together. Here's looking at you, Paris Marathon 2011!