Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Hike Up a Mountain in Arakawa

It’s Showa Day!!  Flo and I drove to Jess’s neck of the woods for what ended up being a 4.5-hour hike up a rather steep mountain.  For the first time exactly four days, the weather was perfect.  The sun was shining, it was warm enough to put the jacket in the backpack, and cool enough to climb straight up without sweating buckets.   After PNG, I was under the pretentious impression that nothing I ever saw for the rest of my life could ever compare to the beauty that exists just below the equator, BUT today’s trek was pretty pretty, and to think it exists in the greater Murakami area!!  Jess’s lengthy legs forced Flo and I to bounce up the mountain until a pretty flower or gnarly root distracted us from walking.  At the tippy-top we joined the party of some other hikers for a bento (packed lunch), only we felt a little out of place as we neglected to pack the standard floor tarp, sake, and chocolate.  Thanks to not listening to Flo or my sense of direction, and instead leaving the navigation down the other side of the mountain to Jess, we were able to get back down.  What better way to end a beautiful strenuous day than with the Kappa-zushi (cheap, delicious, conveyor belt sushi) and Starbucks in Shibata?!?!  Needless to say, I was EXHAUSTED and STUFFED at the end of the day, definitely hitting the sack before 9:00 pm, ahhhh to be on my very own schedule.  [On a side note, as I write this, there is a crazy man in the teacher’s room singing some song LOUDLY, and no one knows what to do with him… just going to ignore it all…]

A Day Trip to Zenkouji (Saturday, April 25, 2009)

Having Ruu as a friend is GREAT because she’s awesome, AND because she knows of all the cool things going around this prefecture and the next that I would never ever know about otherwise.  For example, in Nagano, there’s a shrine called Zenkouji that has a statue that was made by an ancient Buddhist person in India way back when.  This statue has never actually been seen, nor is it allowed to be seen, but it’s kept at this Zenkouji shrine in Nagano.  A replica of the statue thing was made, but even that is sacred, and is only shown for a month or so once every 7 years!!  Guess what guys??  I saw that replica!!  Ruu booked a classic Japanese bus tour for herself, Jenelle, and I that took us from Niigata to Nagano.  Aside from the weather being nothing but RAIN, it was GREAT to finally experience another stereotype of this country.  On the itinerary, we were to first stop at shrine for 10 minutes, then move on to a bread house for 3 minutes, a cave for 25 minutes, a souvenir shop for 20 minutes, then back to the bus, drive to where we would be provided with a soba lunch for 40 minutes, souvenir shop, and then Zenkouji for a group picture, a quick explanation, a chance to see a little bit of the shrine, meet up again to go to another souvenir shop, stand in a line to stake out of good spot to be blessed, race to get in line to be able to see the closing ceremony of the day, stand in line to get blessed for the second time by the same nun, back to the bus to drive to a shabu-shabu dinner of vegetables, pork, beef, and horse meat, and then bus ride home being forced to listen to the tour guide tell us for the billionth time that we should use caution when getting our bags together when we leave the bus in 2 hours!!  Haha, I had fun J

A Hike Up Gagyuzan (Friday, April 24, 2009)

Lucky for me, the weather sucked yesterday, so the Senami Elementary School hike up Gagyuzan Mountain got pushed back to today!!  I was told to pack a backpack, lunch, and gloves.  Why gloves you ask?  Well that’s because the trail gets pretty steep at the top and we must grip a rope to help us up those parts.  Why a lunch?  Well that’s because we love to eat cute bentos consisting of rice, little bits of meat, veggies, and fruit at the top of mountains.  Why a backpack?  Well that’s to hold not only our gourmet lunches, but also huge containers of tea, handkerchiefs, tissues, picnic tarp (duh, we need something to sit on at the top), and candy.  I packed mittens (thought we needed gloves because it was going to be cold toward the top), a sandwich, and a backpack containing mittens, a sandwich, and a water bottle. 

The WHOLE entire school, hundreds of 1st through 6th graders, got into a single file line and walked from the school to the base of the mountain, and then up the narrow trail to the top.  It was so much fun to walk amongst the crazy students pushing each up and down and off the rope, and listening to their ridiculous stories that little kids that age talk about.  One of my 3rd grade friends even shared her tarp with me at the top so I wouldn’t have to sit on the dirt-y ground!!  Obviously, this was one of the best school days I’ve had in quite some time.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Niigata Road Race

A couple weeks ago Aya-sensei told me about the Niigata Road Race.  We had three options: a 5K, 10K, and 16K.  After some deliberation, we both ended up choosing the 10K while Hiromi and her husband trained for the 5K.  Having to be in the city for the Sunday race, this was a great reason to spend another one of my dwindling weekends with my obaachan.  We walked around Hakusan Park to look at the falling cherry blossoms on Saturday, which actually I think are prettier than the blooming sakura.  A combination of growing green leaves with the falling pink sakura flowers and a carpet of pink petals over the grass makes for one really pretty Spring day.  The race route the following day was along the river and also through falling cherry blossoms.  It was a nice run, with a few familiar faces.  Futoshi even came on his bike to cheer us on!!  As always though, I went out too fast and ran out of gas on the way back.  They award the top 6 finishers of each category with not medals, but boxes of sports drinks, tea, mushrooms, and so on.   Immediately after finishing the race, you can stand in line and get a certificate printed out with your time and place.  I got 7th, JUST missing the giant box of mushrooms!!

Monday, April 13, 2009


Hana = flower; mi = look; Hanami = going to a park to view the blooming cherry blossom trees while drinking!!  Takada Park in Joetsu was the location, about 3 hours south of me.  It was great times with other ALTs from this prefecture and the next.  I’ve been waiting my whole life to see the Sakura in Japan!!  They were pretty in the daylight, and got even more good-looking into the night.  The next day’s soccer practice (with a little bit of softball catch) but a cap on another fantaubulous weekend J

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Papua New Guinea

With my limited vocabulary it’s impossible for me to accurately describe the sheer magnificence of our Papua New Guinea trip.   Part of me wishes I would have journaled better so that I could read and remember every single detail of our two weeks in the jungle.  I have never before been to a place as pure, magical, stunning, real, tranquil, and beautiful as the villages of PNG.  I hope the memories and images will never fade, as I re-grow accustomed to living in the developed world.

It took 10 minutes in a car from my apartment to the train station; an hour and 15 minutes in a train from Murakami to Niigata; 6 hours in a bus from Niigata to Narita Airport; 7 hours in a plane from Tokyo to Port Moresby, PNG; 1 hour in a plane from Port Moresby to Lae; 10 hours in a ferry called ‘The Rainforest’ from Lae to Bau; 1 and a half hours in a Banana Boat from Bau to Saigara; and finally another hour in a Banana Boat from Saigara to Pema, which is the village where our charity donations were used to build a classroom. 

PNG is made up of over 800 different tribes and languages that live in villages with no electricity, pluming, phone lines, and all those amenities that all but rule our daily lives.  While the majority of the world is rapidly developing and exploiting the earth’s natural resources, PNG has managed to, for the most part, live with what is around them.  A rising problem in the country is deforestation and mining for gold by other countries.  Greedy companies can too easily trick a village into signing a contract that allows them to ruin their luscious jungles for a small price.  The Village Development Trust (VDT), the organization we donated our money to, is a grassroots, non-government organization that works with individual villages to promote practical sustainable development of village resources.  Some of the things we saw first hand were schools being built in villages so that children would not have to leave their homes for the cities to receive an education, and a ‘Wokabout’ that allows lumber to be cut from a tree right where it is cut down.  For every tree that is cut down, a certain number of trees must be planted.  The Wokabout eliminates the need for smaller trees the be cut down in order to get to a more desirable big tree, and the lumber is then carried out of the jungle.  We helped (a little)!!

We spent two nights in Lae (only supposed to spend one night there, but The Rainforest Ferry needed a repair ~ as they say, ‘expect the unexpected in PNG’), one night in the coastal village of Bau, one night in Saigara, a village on the Waria River, 4 nights in Pema, a village further down the river in Waria Valley, and then another night in Saigara, 2 nights in Bau, and the last half-a-night in Lae.  Each village welcomed us with open arms, cheers, and some kind of tribal dance and song.  The welcome in Saigara consisted of a man running at us and screaming with a plant spear, showing us that he could have killed us, but didn’t.  We’d follow the processions of painted people singing and jumping into the villages where the people would yell ‘Oro, oro, oro!!’ (‘welcome, welcome, welcome’) at us. 

We spend most of our time in the villages belonging to the Zia Tribe in Waria Valley, Morobe Province.  Within the tribe, people belong to one of four clans: Yewa: symbolized by the Bird of Paradise and in charge of planning events, Wapo: Eagle, farmers; Sakia: White Cockatoo, fishermen; Bago: Hornbill and pig hunters.  People can only marry outside of their clan, and children become the clan of their mother.  I was chosen to be part of the Yewa Clan, Bird of Paradise, and Party Planners!! 

Each of the villages we stayed at had a guesthouse where we slept in mosquito nets, ate loads of delicious dishes of fruits, vegetables, and rice, bathed in the river and ocean, and hung our laundry to dry.  Some of the guesthouses were kind enough to supply us with a generator so that we could charge our camera batteries and hang out.  We pooped in outhouses, one broke…woops!!  The only thing we really had to take heed of were the bugs.  Some mosquitoes carry malaria, and sand flies can cause a person to want to chop off their bitten limbs.  For whatever unknown reason, I’m not as tasty to these bugs as other people in the team were.  People hated me for being able to get by without covering every inch of my skin while they rubber-banded their long pants shut.  

PNG kids have the most gorgeous smiles, and are too much fun to play around with.  We’d chase them, swim with them, play Frisbee, soccer, volleyball, and teach them games from our childhood everyday.  They gave us necklaces made from shells, seeds, and bananas, bracelets made from leaves, bilum bags made from tree bark, grass skirts, and drums. 

The sounds of hornbills woke me up in the mornings.  Each day we would do something new, play with new kids, dance a new dance, learn a new song, hike to a new place, eat a new dish, and so on.  I drank and ate the most delicious coconuts multiple times per day.  At night, we could see the billions of stars shining so bright, even the Southern Cross!!

Our group of 17 consisted of Christian (team leader), Colleen, Etsuko, Jess, Margaret, Matt, Megan, Mia, Mike, Nicole, Nicole, Rick, Reed, Sean, Troy, Tsuneo, and I.  The enchantment of the trip caused us to get along so well, I can’t imagine what the two weeks would have been like without them.  Our 3 main guides, all from the Waria area, Maine, Dzia, and Tuja were fantastic.  They taught me so much about their villages, customs, way of life, and tribe history – Maine even taught me a couple of chords on the guitar!!  It was so difficult to say goodbye, but hopefully we will be able to keep in touch forever.