Friday, June 19, 2009


Yoko invited me to play badminton with her and some of the other Kamikaifu teachers last night.  Sure, badminton sounds cool.  In my mind, it’s one of those sports that ranks in the same category as Frisbee, bags, and bocci ball: a summer-time BBQ, laid-back, fun sport.  Apparently, like ping-pong, badminton is one of those sports that everyone grows up playing … and excelling at.  These skinny little Japanese girls were ‘smashing’ the ‘shuttle’ with such experienced technique that I nearly threw my arm out trying to keep up.  I was gripping and swinging the racket so hard that I lost all ability to do anything else with my entire right arm for the rest of the night.  I’m not over-exaggerating at all when I say that I struggled to put coins into the vending machine and grip the tea bottle with my right hand.  It’s shaking as I type this, but it was SO MUCH FUN!!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sea of Japan (Monday, June 15, 2009)

Once in a blue moon, do I get to drive along the beautiful coast to Kamikaifu Elementary School.  It’s been a while since the weather has been picture perfect worthy for the Sea of Japan, rice paddies, and a graveyard.  

Oo-uchi-juku, Fukushima (Sunday, June 14, 2009)

There was supposed to be a gyoza party at Ling Ling’s this afternoon.  Unfortunately for her, she caught herself a cold from Frisbee.  Fortunately for the Aoki’s and I, we had an entire free day.  Apparently, Ruu had wanted to go to an old samurai town in Fukushima for quite some time, so that’s what we did!!  What would normally cost 3000-yen (~$30) for a 3-hour drive on the express way now costs only 1000-yen on the weekends with an ETC (like an I-pass)!!  Sweet deal. 

Into the mountains and fog we drove, to a place where Samurai used to stop on their way to a further away town.  Flourishing during the Edo period (1602~1868), Ouchi-juku was a post station town, located on the West Aizu Highway that connected Aizumakamatsu, Nikko, and Edo(Tokyo).  After the Meiji Restoration, national roads and modern vehicles replaced foot traffic through Ouchi-juki.  The town was deserted, but preserved; then later designated a Traditional Architectural Preservation District of Japan, and restored into what it is today.  Traditionally thatched Japanese roofed houses line the long dirt road.  The grass roofs provide mega-insulation against the brutal mountainous winters. 

Of course the main reason we went to Ouchi-juku was to eat the famous negi-soba, or Japanese buckwheat noodles with a fat green onion.  It seems like every Japanese mountain town is famous for it’s soba noodles.  I feel like I’ve been to plenty of mountain towns to taste a range of soba to be allowed to say that the negi-soba from Ouchi-juku was by far the BEST soba I have EVER had.  While taking small bites of your only utensil, a thick green onion, you slurp up the delicious hand-made soba noodles.  Though, it got a bit more difficult to eat as our utensils got shorter and shorter. 

After Ochi-juku, we stopped by a tourist spot known for its beautiful view of the Abukuma River.  We had fun jumping on a suspension bridge and walking along a natural cutout path in the bordering gorge until it started to rain.  But then we were given awesome miso-soup for free before we made a run for it back to the car – well Futoshi did while Ruu and I waited to be picked up – thanks Futoshi!!

Frisbee and Someone called 'Tomo's' Birthday BBQ (Saturday, June 13, 2009)

We left the House of Lights with just enough time to get some ramen and make it to Jon’s monthly Frisbee gathering.  I wish I had been able to make it to the first two because it was SO much FUN!!  Jon reserved the huge Niigata City Sports Park field for four hours, rain or shine.  For the first time in my life, I played around on artificial grass, and to my surprise, thought it was awesome.  Over 30 people of varying abilities showed up to make four pretty competitive teams.  The team I was on ‘Orange Ties’ wound up getting second place, woot!!

Immediately after Frisbee was some guy named Tomo’s Birthday BBQ.  Ruu, Fuu, Courtney and I were all invited to it, but realized once we were all together that none of us knew who he was!  He ended up being a really cool, peace-sign-loving guy, and welcomed us to as much drink and meat as we pleased.

House of Lights (Friday, June 12, 2009)

Somewhere down south in Tokamachi, is a house called ‘House of Light.’  It’s an experimental work of art that was created by a man named James Turrell, AKA: an artist of lights.  Going off the website, he was inspired by the essay by Junichiro Tanizaki, ‘In Praise of Shadows.’  He wanted to incorporate his specialty of media and lights with the traditional usage of light in Japanese houses.  There was a room with a hole in the ceiling, a porch facing the direction you would hope to see a sun set, and a hot tub with different colored LED lights only.  It was a pretty cool house, indeed, but what it ended up being was a 6,000-yen house party with enough meat to feed 100 hungry tigers!!

Sushi with Kasai (Thursday, June 11, 2009)

I had another dinner date with my new BFF, Kasai-san on Thursday night.  It took us a little driving around and to decide on Kamihayashi's kaiten-zushi.  She force-fed me more sushi than could fit in my stomach, but it was SO GOOD!!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Kamikaifu Undoukai & Murakami Concert (Sunday, June 7, 2009)

They tried to teach me in Elementary School to ‘just say no’ but clearly the DARE t-shirts and catchy slogans didn’t stick.  I don’t know how to say ‘no’ even though often times, I’m fully aware that I’m double-booking myself when I say ‘yes.’  For example, Sunday:  I knew that I would be tired after catching the last train back to Murakami on Saturday night, but still, I couldn’t refuse the invitation to Kamikaifu’s Sports Day.  A little while later, one of my incredibly friendly old-lady-neighbors invited me to her chorus concert that same day.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I already had plans, and instead blurted out ‘yes, of course I will go!!’

Despite how tired I was this morning, I am SO glad I made it to Kamikaifu’s Sports Day.  I LOVE the faculty and students at this school.  Even though I only go to there once a month, they make it a point to include me in all of the big events going on.  Because there are only 39 or so students in the whole elementary school, I assumed that this was going to be a much smaller-scale undoukai than Senami’s.  Wrong again!!  The school included the pre-schoolers of the area, plus all of the parents, grandparents, teachers, and neighbors, resulting in a full-out festival.  At first I tried to be invisible, but one by one, people saw that I was there.  Before I knew it, I was entered into the triathlon relay race with the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.  The first leg was hurdles, second was crawling under hurdles, the third was crawling under a net, and the forth (hmmm wasn’t it called a triathlon…???) was rolling a can with a stick.  The kids were so glad to see me – it touched my heart.  It’s times like these that I feel guilty about leaving.  I was supposed to leave before noon, but the teachers invited me inside to eat lunch with them, and I don’t know how to say ‘no’ so I accepted but then really did have to excuse myself before everyone was done eating so I wouldn’t be late for the Murakami concert. 

As it turns out, it wasn’t just my neighbor’s chorus concert; it was much bigger than that.  There were about 10 singing groups, and I ended up knowing people in five of those groups.  Some were kid-students, eikaiwa-students, collegues, and neighbors.  Again, I thought I could get by with being invisible, but this is just too small of a town, and I’m just too known by too many people for that.  I never thought that just being there could make a difference in people’s emotions, but it might.  When I said ‘hi’ to the performers I knew, they really seemed to appreciate that I was there, which in turn made me really happy.  The performances were nice.  What made them so great was that you could tell that singing was an actual hobby of each of the performers on stage.  I know the kids at Senami voluntarily practice during their recess breaks, and the older people must take time out of their busy schedules to get together and rehearse. 

Shirone Giant Kite Festival (Saturday, June 6, 2009)

This weekend was full of Kite Festivals, the biggest one being in Shirone, near Sanjo.  Before reading The Kite Runner, I had no idea that Kite Fights existed.  Before hearing about the Kite Festivals in Niigata, I had absolutely no idea that they existed outside of Afganistan!!  All I knew about kite fighting came straight out of that book, so I was excited, and expecting to see little kites, and little boys battle with bloody fingers and glass-lined ropes until one was sent flying.  Of course I was expectations were completely wrong!

Apparently this is a 350-year-old festival that features kite fighting between two villages.  The reason they call it a ‘Giant Kite Festival’ is because the kites that fly are actually GIANT.  It all takes place on a river called Nakanokuchi, where spectators can watch from one of the two bridges that are on either side of the events, or in a designated seating area, but nowhere else.  It takes about 20 full-grown people to get the kites into the sky.  They near one of the bridges and then run toward the other bridge.  One by one, the full-grown team members drop off from the back so that the kite can fly higher and higher.  Ideally, there would have been wind this weekend so that we would have been able to see the kites fight to the death.  But alas, the weather conditions were less than idea, and instead of the kites cutting each the other, they had to resort to getting tangled until they both crashed fiercely into the river.

After we had enough of watching kites soar and plummet, Jess and Flo dropped me off in Niigata City.  This gave me JUST enough time to find Geneva a birthday gift before her 30th birthday dinner party!!  Like I mentioned months ago, Ruu and Futoshi have the ins with everybody who’s anybody.  Futoshi is good friends with the master of ‘Rocks’ a bar that serves curly fries (which is actually the reason for this place being chosen for the big event)!!  Ruu was able to reserve the whole place for our party of 13.  All you can drink and eat for 3000-yen, woot!!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Minami Elementary, Senami Onsen, Eikaiwa (Wednesday, June 3, 2009)

My mom's mom, aunts, and uncles
My grandma literally took the kimono-yukata off her back and tied it on her underware.  Nanae's snapping pictures, and everyone is just about crying laughing.  I didn't know why everyone was laughing until they explained the funny situation to me.  Once I got it, it WAS pretty funny.  

Goodness gracious today was a busy day!!  Actually the past two weeks and continuing through next week, every single day has been and will be busy, but today was especially busy!

One of my favorite great aunts, Nanae, emailed me multiple times out of the blue from mysterious email addresses.  Some probably ended up in my spam folder, but a couple got through.  She emailed to let me know that her and my grandma and their sisters were coming to Murakami’s Senami Onsen via two of my great uncle’s driving abilities.  It would be great if I could join them, take it easy, drink some beer, and spend the night…only I have to work AND teach an Eikaiwa class on Wednesdays!!  There was no way I could NOT meet with them, so I took one of my remaining 7 hours of vacation time left off, hauled butt straight to Senami Onsen, hung out with them for exactly 2 ½ hours, and then rushed to Eikaiwa. 

During my 2½ hours with the grandma and great aunts, they fed me generously, gave me exactly four bags of goodies, snuck me into the classy onsen for free, and then dressed me in a kimono-esque yukata.  Phewf!!

Before the onsen though: The FUNNIEST thing happened at lunch with the same 5th grade class from last week, only a different group of kids.  One boy was making fun of the girl sitting across from him for sneezing and burping at the same time.  He then proceeded to act out action of what sneezing and burping at the same time looks like.  Needless to say, the whole cluster erupted in laughter.  Meanwhile the boy sitting next to him was in the middle of drinking his milk.  Luck must have been with me today as I miraculously glanced over to him at the exact moment the milk started to spill out of his mouth AND nose!!!    Oh GOD, THAT was funny!!

Then after the onsen: I rushed to Eikaiwa.  From way back when, I remember that a sure-fire way to get a class talking was to offer up chocolate.    Well, I had 4 bags of chocolate and have always thought it would be fun to throw food at people.  It worked: the class was talking AND it WAS fun to throw chocolate at people!!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Day Trip to Hagurosan (Sunday, May 31, 2009)

Flo’s boyfriend, Tom, from Australia is in town, which means that everyone is up for day trips.  I was invited to tag along with the happy couple and Jess to Haguro Mountain in Yamagata.  The weather was misty and overcast which made for a really eerie and beautiful day.  The hiking path consisted of 1000 steep and different sized steps.  Along the way, we stopped at Sasagawanagare, a small salt factory, a Japanese Garden, and then a place that had a real mummy.  Apparently this guy mummified himself 125 years ago, and now his rotting body is on display alongside his calligraphy work and other Buddhist statues and whatnot.  From what I gathered from the genius brains of Flo and Jess, people who thought they had some sort of importance in the world would try (and mostly fail) at mummifying themselves in order to reach the supremest state of Buddhism.  It’s a process that took 5-8 years of self-poisoning, starvation, and enclosure.  This guy definitely succeeded in that process and is now completely dead but NOT rotting.  Apparently there are only about 20 in Japan!!  Unfortunately photographing was not allowed. 

Away from the sea, and into the mountains, the rain let up and was replaced with a mystical fog.  Along the hike/steps were interesting bridges, a 5-story pagoda, waterfall, clearings, birds, frogs, hundred-year-old trees, torii (traditional Japanese gates that mark the transition from the profane world to the sacred world) shrines, and statues.  Jess said something about there being four stages of stairs.  Some were SO steep and narrow while others were questionable as to whether or not they actually counted into the 1000 steps.  To make one stage go faster, Jess and I tried to race up the steps, though we were only able to make it half way before I started to feel the fatigue all the way in my fingers.  The way down was even more of a challenge as the steps seemed steeper and narrower and were wet.  I had no idea that today was going to be so magical!!


Salt Shop and Factory
Joan's (Holla!!) doing a 'Flat Stanley' project with the kids she nannies for.  Here they are with a flooded rice paddy.  

Flo and Tom

If you look closely at the house, you'll notice a group of grandmas sitting, chilling, sipping on tea, watching the garden as the rain fell.

Photos of a cute Japanese Garden along the way.
The start of our hike up Haguro-san

Fire Rock

A Freshly Fallen Tree