Friday, February 27, 2009

ナイタ →Naita → Nighter at Tainai

One of the only things I talk about with the head teacher at Minami is snowboarding and skiing, the best places around here, and the times that they’re open.  He mentioned something about how the teachers often get together after school to go to a ‘nighter’ at Tainai and I demanded to be invited the next time out.  That next time was last night!!  The snow around here is quickly vanishing, and even though the conditions were quite icy and painful, I have to cherish every moment in the mountains – unfortunately I can’t live like this forever.   

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

We were supposed to go to the Tokamachi Winter Festival, but went snowboarding instead ...

Japan is a country that prides itself on having the number one this and that, and tends to rank anything and everything that can be put in order.  For example in Japan, the #1 most delicious beef is raised in Kobe, the #1 tallest mountain is Mt. Fuji, and #1 best rice comes from Niigata.  Japan has the #1 best snow powder in the world.  Within Japan, Hokkaido’s Niseko Ski-jo is the best.    Hokkaido also has the #1 best Snow Festival, followed by Tokamachi’s yuki-matsuri.  In an effort to save $1000, I opted out of the trip to the northern most island of the country, and instead drove a couple hours southeast to Tokamachi.   Since we were so close to Nagano and the Joetsu mountains, might as well snowboard while we were there, right?!?!

After my hip hop dance class, and the debut of my  #1 favorite super sweet purple and black and white cow print Nike shoes, I met Jenelle in the city, and we road tripped it to Tokamachi.  We hadn’t even escaped the city limits when we found ourselves in adventure #1.  Some ‘yankee’ or ‘young trouble maker’ blocked us in the 7/11 parkinglot.  When Jenelle gave him a dirty look, he reluctantly backed up to let us out, but then proceeded to follow us out of the lot, onto the road, then onto the bypass, and nearly on the expressway!!  There was no doubt about the fact that he was tailing us, changing speeds and lanes just as Jenelle did.  If it weren’t for some tricky thinking when the bypass and expressway split, he probably would have followed us all the way to Tokamachi!!

Marshall graciously let us, Laura, and Mark crash at his place on Friday and Saturday night so that we could get up and out early.  I had been looking forward to Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort in Nagano ALL week, and it did not dissapoint!!  We couldn’t have asked for better weather with powder snow falling in the morning, and the sun shining through after noon.  It felt like a Christmas Winter Wonderland with snow covered trees and mountains all around.  Marshall couldn’t wait to show us his favorite ‘natural half pipe’ powder run ~ a run through a tree-filled ravine that, despite being roped off was fairly popular among the skiers and snowboarders who were equip with the right kind of powder-specific gear.  The powder was REDICULOUS!!  It HAD to have been well above my height of 63cm.  The first bit was wicked fun, bumping and jumping, having virtually no control and narrowly missing collisions with trees until I fell … and sunk.  Marshall and Mark had a bit more control over the powder while the powder had complete control over Jenelle and I.  Trying to just stand up in that much powder was near impossible as my arms went straight down, rolling around sunk my body in further, and even if when I did find a way to beat the odds and get up, my board was completely covered that I’d fall and have to start the whole process all over again.  Jenelle struggled through the powder that was directly under the lift and had to deal with the applauses and laughs from the audience above, while I slowly slid and rolled to the bottom of the ravine.  There were points that I really thought I was going to suffocate and perish.  I never thought I would be so happy to feel hard snow under my board until I miraculously made it out of the quicksand-like snow trap.  It was a great experience that I never want to experience again.  After a necessary lunch maybe-free coffee, we goofed around on a few more runs, onsen-ed in Nozawa, and slowly made our way back to the end of the snow festival.

Whoah, back up!!  When I dropped my car off at Ruu and Futoshi’s, they completely shocked me with an early birthday present – a PERFECT pair of orange-lensed, anti-fog snowboard goggles!!  The whole world looked clearer and brighter with the goggles ~ THANK YOU THANK YOU SOOOOOO MUCH!!!!  No more tears ;)

The Tokamachi Snow Festival, from what we heard from people who actually watched the show was ‘wicked.’  We were still able to see the sculptures and the empty stage, eat winter matsuri food, Korean BBQ, and meet up with friends later so it was alllllll good.  The streets were super slick, and at one point Jenelle slipped and fell, Mark went to help her and fell, then I laughed and fell.  We all fell the same exact way, loosing traction in the feet, trying to run in place to get a grip until plopping on the behind. 

After sleeping in a little, and enjoying Marshall’s home cooking, we met Ruu, Murayama, Casanova, and Dave at Joetsu Kokusai for MORE boarding!!!  The weather was unusually warm, and the views from all around the mountain were gorgeous.

That, and we had to go on another adventure to relocate Jenelle’s lost phone.  We went back to the Korean BBQ place, and as Jenelle was inside looking for it, I was outside calling it.  The first try didn’t go through, but a man answered the second call.  ‘Huh?  Um…where is this phone?”  “It’s at the police station.”  You know you’re in Japan when you loose a phone in the street, and someone brings it to the police station.  Furthermore, you know you’re in Japan when the description we gave of where it was lost (maybe where we fell on the ice) didn’t at all match up with the report, but were still able to get it back, no problem. 

Dinner was delicious and hilarious as usual.  Futoshi prepared nabe, cobb salad, sweet soy sauce potatoes, amazing fish, sashimi, beef, and vegetables while we were on our way back.  Jenelle and I picked up a chocolate chiffon cake that later went perfectly with the Godiva Coffee - which helped keep me awake for the drive home.   

Dinner at Masami-san's (Thursday, February 19, 2009)

Since arriving in Murakami, I’ve been hearing about the wonderful Masami-san and finally had the privilege of meeting her!!  From the moment I spoke to her on the phone, I knew she was as great as everyone had said because both of us for some reason couldn’t stop giggling.  Over the years, she’s been a tremendous help to ALTs in Murakami, helping with Japanese, doctors, cars, and anything under the sun.  She cooked Reed and I a huge chicken, pasta, potatoes, vegetables, salad, cake and tim-tam meal.  The conversation was great fun, and we ended up staying much later than we thought we would.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oshiro-yama All Covered in Snow

I love the little yama near my apartment.  Yama = mountain, but it’s not really a Rocky-sized mountain, nor is it a hill.  There’s really no other way to describe it than ‘yama.’  I took a photo of a torii (Shinto shrine archway) in the summer and fall, and knew that I’d have to trek up after the next big snowfall to get a winter shot.  We got loads of snow dumped on us this week, and in fact, it’s still snowing.  Tuesday was a pretty nice day but the snow wasn’t quite powder and I messed the shot up a little.  On Wednesday there was much more powder but the sky was all grey.  On the way up yesterday evening, I met a grandpa-aged man who became very interested in me when he heard my accent.  We climbed to the top together, and as it turns out is yet another Murakamian who noticed my article in the paper.  What a funny man he was, stopping in his tracks every time he learned something new about me.  ‘Whhhhaaaat?? You’re from Chicago??  Do you know Mr. Obama??’  ‘WOW you’re only 23 years old and in Japan all alone???’  ‘Oh My!!  You’re mother is from Niigata??’  ‘You like sushi??’  With all these stops, it took a little longer than usual to get to the top.  Once I started taking my pictures, he ditched me to climb back down.  I caught up with him at the bottom, we exchanged phone numbers, and he said he would take me to a really good restaurant in Murakami (^.^)V

Skating, Singing, Snowboarding

Aimee and I officially sold our souls to join a Friday night Hip Hop dance class in Nakajo.  From the inspiration of MTV’s ABDC, and the desire to one day be a backup dancer for JT, I hope to get my money’s worth and get a lot better at dancing than I am right now.  Time has yet to tell how many Friday nights I’m willing to sacrifice, but after two classes I’m not yet bored and looking forward to tomorrow J

Saturday’s musical performance was scheduled for a pretty big venue in Joetsu.  The building not only housed a concert hall, but also a swimming pool and ice skating rink.  Jenelle had the brilliant idea of showing up early to go skating for a couple hours before the show, and that is exactly what we did.  Being from Canada, ice-skating runs through her blood.  I tried to mimic her ‘shoot the duck’ and spiral moves, and actually almost landed a triple salchow – NOT!!

After the musical, we celebrated Holly’s last performance with, duh, karaoke!  A few of us who had our hearts set on snowboarding at Ikenotaira the next day called it a relatively early night. 

The city of Myoko boasts loads of ski-jos that are pretty well known through Japan.  Last weekend we went to Suginohara, and this weekend Marshall, Dave, Lauren, Courtney, Jenelle, and I tried out Ikenotaira.  Though not quite 8.5km long, Ikenotaira had the same wicked view of snow white mountains and a pristine lake from the top.  The slopes weren’t ridiculously steep so everyone could enjoy going and getting better.  There were some ‘bump jumps’ toward the bottom – I looked up to see Courtney bite it pretty hard. At one point one of the screws in my bindings came out, but luckily Marshall found it before I could give myself a heart attack.  The weather was beautiful and warm, though a little less than ideal for snowboarding and skiing.  We haven’t gotten much snow in the past couple of weeks, so the snow was a little slushy during the day and turned to heavy mush right before we left.  Jenelle’s temporary ‘box car’ struggled slowly through the slushy parking lot.  Once it successfully made it to the road and started to pick up speed, she looked in her rearview mirror and saw the car behind her swerve.  “Naomi, do you have your huge black mittens?” pause … think …  pause “OH NO!!!  I left them on top of your car!!!!”  So she turned the box around to find two huge black mittens lying in the middle of the road.  You know you’re in Japan when the passing cars go out of their way to avoid running over random lost gear.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Celebrity Status

A month or so ago, while joining the Kudou family for dinner, a man from the Murakami Newspaper stopped by.  I shouldn’t have thought it was a coincidence because it ended up being planned by both the newspaperman and Kudou, but we talked a bit, and now I have a monthly column in the Murakami section of the Niigata Nippo.  My first article was due over the weekend, and came out on Tuesday.  It never crossed my mind that EVERYONE in this town reads the paper, and from Tuesday morning through this very moment, people I know and don’t know keep saying ‘OH!!  Naomi-sensei, you were in the newspaper!!!’  One of the first graders at Senami brought a copy of the article into school and asked for an autograph, leading to EVERYONE demanding a ‘sign.’  It’s so cute and I must say, I LOVE the attention and just laugh every time someone mentions it.  Hahahahahahahaha!!!

I HEART Niigata Winter After All

Due to National Foundation Day, Wednesday was a holiday… which means SNOWBOARDING!!!  During our Saturday adventures we invited the whole bar and then some to join us on the slopes of Tainai. 

Since we would all be getting up early on Wednesday morning, Ru and Futoshi invited me to a sushi event at one of their favorite sushi restaurants in the city.  I had to book it after school, but was still late due to rush hour.  I got to their place, threw my stuff down, and we left on three of their 5 ‘mama-cherries,’ or bicycles to the other side of the station where the event was happening.  So what exactly was this event you ask??  Well, every now and again, the restaurant gets a huge TUNA, and cuts it up on the sushi bar in front of everyone and serves it immediately after.  We had the cheapest, middle, most expensive fatty tuna (maguro), the part behind its gills, liver, salmon, buri, raw Murakami cow meat, and other fish that I tried to learn the names of but can’t remember right now.  Since I’ve been born, I’ve never tasted sushi THIS DELICIOUS.  The sashimi melted in my mouth, and the maki (rolls) combined the most amazing sushi rice with the most mouth-watering raw fish, UGH words can’t even begin to explain how happy my mouth was!!  They had janken (rock paper scissors) tournaments for a giant slab of tuna, and then by the request of Ru, another tournament for a slab of Murakami beef.  Unfortunately our group lost both BUT fortunately, Ru fussed enough to get us a secret piece of the raw beef :p  Of course Ru and Futoshi are friends with all of the sushi chefs and were able to get dishes that aren’t even on the menu!! 

We met us with Jenelle who would also be snowboarding at Tainai the next day, and had to run away when she tried to kill an octopus on the walk back to Ru and Futoshi’s apartment ~ HILARIOUS!!

Futoshi not only brewed us Weasel Coffee in the morning, but also cooked us a gourmet western breakfast including eggs, sausages, bread, lettuce, jam, and mayo.  It hasn’t snowed much in the past week or so, so Tainai’s snow was icy in the morning.  The more I go, the more courage I build to go faster, but I fell pretty bad on a narrow part, bounced, and nearly fell off of the mountain.  Luckily the sun rose, and the snow turned to slush by the afternoon, becoming faux powder.  A group of nearly 20 of us showed up on Wednesday to ski/snowboard and then take over the onsens to make me LOVE winter in Niigata finally!!