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Video: ups and downs – How I Joined a Japanese Choir

It’s been many months and summer is almost here. Cherry blossoms have bloomed and fallen. During the holidays and into the spring, a few bumps along the way led to headaches and delays. Beneath all that however were the trips, festivals, and most importantly the people there to push you through those times. In Nagasaki, one such group does that through the magic of music.

A special thanks to The Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club. I love you all and couldn’t have done this without you!

Sorry for the delay. Had to borrow a friend’s computer to do this! Thanks so much Matt!

Music:
Hold Me Down – Foreign Fields
いざ起て戦人よ – Sung by the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club
ふるさと – Sung by the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club

 

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8 (most used in this video)

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CC 2015

Check out my previous episode on traveling to Yakushima and Tanegashima, and taking video of the stars above Japan.

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Video: under the stars – Filming the Night Skies of Japan

A trip to the islands of Yakushima and Tanegashima at the beginning of fall provided an opportunity to visit one of the most picturesque landscapes Japan has to offer. My favourite photos however whether back home in Canada or in Japan, are taken simply by pointing my camera up into the night sky.

My longest video thus far with over 1500 km driven for footage around Kyushu and about 2 months to film everything, hope you enjoy!

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0 (most used in this video)

Premiere Pro CS6

Check out my previous episode on Nagasaki and my summer adventures.

The city of Ina

Nagano’s hidden gem: The city of Ina

For my first assignment for my new job as a National Relief Teacher  (traveling English substitute teacher) I was sent to the city of Ina in Nagano prefecture.  Ina itself is a small town…don’t know why they call it a city when its more like a village… But contrary to it’s size, it has an amazing amount of nature and scenery.

The beauty of Ina

伊那市

There are many bridges in the town with beautiful rivers flowing underneath.  Wherever you look, you are surrounded by tall mountains and with just a short drive, you can drive up and have an amazing view over the town.

During my stay, I taught at six elementary schools.  Five of the schools were in beautiful areas outside of the main part of town and one was so far up a mountain and isolated that it became my favorite school.

Ina school

Large mountain landscapes, forests as far as the eye can see and flowers and sakura trees surrounding the school.

My favorite school was about a 40min drive from my house and the drive consisted of going through winding roads with both sides covered with rice fields.  The school has less than a 100 students and only one classroom for both 5th and 6th students.  For the 5th grade class there were 11 students and for the 6th grade there were only 6.  It was very enjoyable and it allowed myself to get closer with my students and create more game filled classes making it more fun for everyone.

The school ground is surrounded by cherry trees in the spring, it is literally pink as far as the eye can see.  Unfortunately for me, the cherry blossoms season had just finished and I was not able to see anything more than pictures.

The great monkey Yakuza

monkey gangster2

The school also had a pack of wild monkeys that came down and raided their vegetable patch during the warmer months!  How cool is that?! Like a monkey gang! No…a monkey Yakuza!  I really wanted to see them (my obsession with Japanese maybe out of hand…) But again, unfortunately, because of the season, the monkeys were in hibernation or something and don’t come down from the mountains.  But I was happy just knowing that I went to a monkey yakuza school.

Food

Ina city also has two famous dishes: Roman a form of yakisoba and ….insects!  I had the pleasure to eat both of them.  Click on the links above to be taken to a more in depth review with delicious pictures.

Sooo good! Rivals even Osaka's own!

Sooo good! Rivals even Osaka’s own!

There was also a very delicious Kushikatsu 串カツ restaurant in Ina city called “Shiro Hige” (white beard), which was named after a famous character from the anime “One Piece.”  Shiro Hige served a cheap all you can drink and some of the best deep friend food I have ever had!  You could get a wide variety of different deep fried dishes from almost every meat and vegetable you can think of.  All the dishes were relatively affordable and the portions were not too bad for Japanese standards.  The staff were also really funny and friendly.  But no English menu, so if you have no Japanese speaking or writing abilities it may be a bit hard.

Here is their website: http://shirohige.jp/

Sightseeing

The healing area of Zero Jiba

There isn’t a whole like to see in Ina city.  However, one famous sightseeing sport in Ina has to be Zero Jiba(ゼロ磁場  ぜろじば).   This area is said to have the ability to cure any ailments you may have due it’s “zero” magnetic field.  It was feature on many Japanese TV shows and gets many visitors daily.  Even monks track up the mountain to get water from the springs.  Click the link above to read more about the spot and my misadventure getting lost in the mountains.

There were also some great temples in the city, one which was so secluded when I entered all I could hear was a few birds chirping and my own footsteps echoing in the surrounding forest.  So relaxing.

On the way to one of my schools I also saw a strange looking temple which appeared to be in the yard of someones house.  Upon further inspection I found out that the owner of the residence made the temple and the outer walls which had glass with wooden carvings in-cased in them!  It was probably one of the most impressive things I have ever seen in Japan that wassn’t listed in any tour book or asking for $4 entrance fees.  I also tried to go and talk with the man for an interview but no one was home.  Yet the gate to the entrance of the house was still open and people were allowed to walk in and enter the temple and look around.

Although Ina is beautiful it is also fairly close to other areas of Nagano.  Therefore, I ended up spending my first couple weekends going to Matsumoto prefecture and going to see Matsumoto castle,  Kamikochi and Zenkouji temple.

Final Thoughts

Over all in just 4 weekends I saw a lot of Nagano and made a lot of friends through my job and visiting the local bars and sightseeing areas.  In such a short time I was able to see a lot, not to mention some rare opportunities that I’m very lucky and grateful for.  I don’t get why, but I seem to just be on the Japanese gods good side and feel blessed in this country.  I hope you all can have such great experiences too.  Please leave a comment below and tell me some of your great adventures!

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Video: summer lights – The Highlights of Summer in Japan

Summer is over and school is starting again. Here are a few of the highlights experienced during the last 2 months.

This video definitely took a bit longer to make than I hoped. School starting up and just generally being busy has made it especially difficult to find time to simply sit down and edit. Hopefully it’s entertaining and stay tuned for the next episode which I assure you will be filled with a few surprises 😉

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 (most used in this video)

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CS6

Check out my previous episode on Omura and first moving in.

Destination fuji

In Search of Goraiko: Destination Fuji (How To Climb Mt. Fuji)

The  beauty of the Japanese language, in my opinion, rests in the existence of a myriad of words used to describe very specific feelings that are often thought to be difficult to put into words. Let me elaborate. The Japanese word “goraiko” (ご来光) can be defined as the sunrise from Mt. Fuji, and sometimes as the overwhelming feeling you get when witnessing said sunrise. This feeling is often thought to be a sacred experience, as the sun is considered to be godly or god-like.

Of course this word does not exist in the English language, but I was still determined to experience its meaning. After all, how can we truly understand a feeling unless we have previously experienced it ourselves? And with that, I made the (crazy) decision to hike to the peak of Mount Fuji, a World Heritage Site and Japan’s highest mountain. At night. Oh my!

What will follow are general Fuji hiking tips mixed in with an account of my own personal experience.

No this isn't Shinjuku station- even the summit of Fuji is super crowded during the hiking season.

No this isn’t Shinjuku station- even the summit of Fuji is super crowded during the hiking season.

Preparation and the Great Fuji Myth

As far as mountain climbing is concerned, Fuji is by no means a difficult climb. Or so they say. Fuji is often advertised as being a mountain that anyone, regardless of level or age, can climb. This should really be taken with a grain of salt. After all, how easy could climbing 3,776 meters for 5-10+ hours be? Realistically, hiking Fuji should not be underestimated and you MUST prepare adequately. Only you can know your own limits, but if you have difficulties climbing up a flight of stairs (as I sometimes do) then you will obviously have difficulties climbing Fuji.

These hikers were well prepared, and they made it to the top!

These hikers were well prepared, and they made it to the top!

Fuji has an official hiking season, early July to early-mid September. This is when most people will climb the mountain, and this is also when I decided to climb. Outside of peak season, climbing Fuji is much, much more challenging, and only experienced hikers are advised to climb. Though it is considerably less congested, temperatures dip well below zero, and the rest huts along the trails are not open for business so you must be bring everything you need.

What you should absolutely have:

  1. HIKING BOOTS. Confession: I climbed Fuji wearing the wrong footwear. I was told that you can rent hiking boots at station 5 of the Fujinomiya trail, however I did not have time to rent any as the rental place closes at 3p.m. Be wary of this! Going up Fuji I was relatively fine with my definitely-not-made-for-hiking sneakers, but on the way down… absolute hell! So please, please, please make sure you bring adequate footwear!
  1. Water! And food! And yen! Yes, you can purchase things to eat or drink along the trail, but the general formula on Fuji is “as altitude increases, prices also increase”. You must keep hydrated as you climb, so it’s good to have plenty of water- as much as you are willing to carry but not less than 1-2L. As far as food goes, the usual hiking foods will do: trail mixes, protein bars, replacement meals, and the like. As for the money, you will need between 200-300 yen each time you use the bathrooms at the rest huts, so plan accordingly.
  2. Layers of warm clothing. It gets very, very cold! Even if at the bottom you are dying from hyperthermia, realize that you may be dying of hypothermia by the time you go up. So bring extra layers, scarves, gloves, hats, blankets, a heated kotatsu table (just kidding on this last one… maybe), etc.
  3. Flashlight, preferably a “head light”. I did not have a head light, but most people did. This will allow you to see while you climb in the dark with both hands free. Very convenient.
Remeber to bring a buddy! Or two!

Remeber to bring a buddy! Or two!

5. At least one buddy! So, you could theoretically climb alone. During hiking season the mountain is literally packed with people so you will technically never ever be alone, but it’s always nice to have someone with you who can help you if anything were to happen. Also my hiking buddies really helped keep me motivated. I am convinced that if I did not have someone with me I would not have gotten to the peak.

  1. Probably something else, but I forget.

Fujinomiya Trail-blazin’

There are four trails you can take to reach the peak. Varying in difficulty and location, each trail offers a slightly different experience. As I live in Shizuoka prefecture, I hiked on a trail starting from there (one trail begins in Yamanashi prefecture)- the Fujinomiya trail. This is a good choice for the less experienced hikers because it has plenty of rest stations along the way. The trail begins at Station 5, 2,400m along the mountain. The peak is Station 10, but this is a bit misleading because there are more than just stations 6, 7, 8, and 9 along the way. There also exists “Old Station 7”, and Station 9.5.

Hiking along the Fujinomiya trail alongside the clouds.

Hiking the Fujinomiya trail alongside the clouds.

During the hiking season, rest stations are equipped with rest huts where you can sleep if you choose to, but that will cost about 6,000 yen depending on the season, and you do need reservations. Fortunately, you do not need to sleep at the huts if you choose not to, and there is some floor room and benches outside of the huts where you can still pull out your blanket and rest for a bit. These rest stations also sell food, drinks, souvenir brand markings for your walking sticks, and bathroom access. It is advisable to rest anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour at any of these stations in order to adjust to the altitude and avoid altitude sickness. My group rested at station 5 for over an hour before beginning, and we spent about 20-30 min at each subsequent station after wards, with intermittent mini-rests throughout, as necessary.

Be prepared for breathtaking views!

Be prepared for breathtaking views!

My experience on the Fujinomiya trail going up was this: during the first 20 minutes I started out waaay too fast, and decided “wow, this is so hard, I can’t do it!”. Definitely you want to keep a very slow and steady pace when you go up… going too fast can really deplete you of oxygen, especially at these altitudes! Personal rule: I don’t always go slow, but when I do, it’s when I hike Mt. Fuji.

Please go at your own pace, drink lots of water, and when you feel like you want to give up (you may feel this a lot), please remember that something special is waiting for you at the top.

Nirvana!

Right before the sun rise...

Right before the sun rise…

...And there it is!

…And there it is!

There is a point on the Fuji hike where you will know that all of the difficulty was worth it- reaching the peak.

Watching the sun rise from the highest point in Japan is absolutely a moment you will remember and cherish for your entire life. No exaggeration. If there is a reason Japan is known as the land of the rising sun, this is it. I won’t describe this moment too much, but I will invite you to try and experience this for yourself at least once in your life.

Post-sunrise, the top of Fuji has much to offer. You can mail a postcard letting your loved ones know you are alive at the peak’s post office, visit a temple where you can purchase charms, walk around and enjoy the scenery, take a peek at Fuji’s very own crater (did you forget that this thing you were climbing was a volcano?), take a nap at the summit, or eat cup ramen at the tenth station.

It does get a bit congested, but I would recommend really soaking up the peak and looking at the volcanic landscape, the rocks, the tori gates, the views…

The Mount Fuji Descent: Descending the 9 Inner Circles of Hell

Beautiful yet deadly- the Mt. Fuji descent.

Beautiful yet deadly- the Mt. Fuji descent.

“That which goes up must also come back down.” – A Wise Man (also, a panicked realization of many people at the peak of a mountain)

Once you’ve reached peak, the only way down is… The way you came up from. Yes, you will have to face the tortuous trail once more! If you are on the Fujinomiya trail, you use the same path to go both up and down, so it can become quite congested during hiking season. You should factor this in with the estimated time it will take you to go back down.

For whatever reason, Fuji guide books say you can descend Fuji in as few as 2 hours. I think this may only be true if you literally jump off the top and fall to the bottom, because I found the Fuji descent to be much, much more difficult than the ascent (although it definitely does take less time). Remember that you probably have not slept in hours, and have just climbed up a mountain, so do not think you have to descend quickly. Take your time and be safe!

Climbing down gravely terrain means you should expect to fall on your bum at least once (or in my case, closer to one thousand times), so make sure you maintain a good pace as to not tumble down the wrong way and get seriously injured.

Yes, some people can run down Fuji and be done in just a few hours, but my guess is that they hail from Krypton and are thus super humans. If this sounds like you, then no need to worry too much about the descent.

Other than that, stay alert! And expect to hear many ohayo’s and konnichiwa’s from friendly hikers that pass you on your way up.

PFSD- Post Fuji Stress Disorder

It's been real, Fuji...

It’s been real, Fuji…

After Fuji you will be beat- in pain, exhausted, starving, and personally, I never wanted to even look at a mountain ever again… so, I fell into the deepest sleep of my life.

It was amazing.

And after that, you can do what I did and reflect back on what was accomplished- I just hiked to the top of Japan’s highest mountain! Check THAT off the bucket list!

“一度も登らない馬鹿、2度登る馬鹿” – “
You are a fool if you never climb it (Mt. Fuji), you are twice the fool if you climb it more than once”.

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On Mountain Climbing and Japanese Language

In mid-June 2014, I stood at the base of the holy Mount Misen within the island of Itsukushima (popularly referred to as Miyajima). Standing with a bottled wheat tea in hand, I had found that the forest leading up the mountain before me was unlike any other I had come across before in Japan, with its dirt-trodden path intercepted by rocks and vines. I had grown fond of hiking in Japan, having wandered up pathways in Tokyo and Kyoto that were often met with both spectacular views and faded moss-covered shrines upon reaching their peaks. Often times while hiking, I envisioned pilgrims, bamboo cutters, and immigrants of days gone by; how they and the people before them had worked to gradually beat down the forests’ soil into trails with each step that they took. As I quietly walked away from the lights and sounds of the city, I imagined that I could, in a sense, feel as those before me had when navigating those ancient passages. I found that whenever faced with the task of an invisible peak before me, I wanted to get there, and see what lay beyond the seemingly endless slope before me.

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Mount Misen 弥山

As I hiked upon Mount Misen, I became enraptured by both my limitations and drives. With every step, it seemed like the humidity rose, the path became less clear, and the top of the mountain seemed further away. Many times I felt that I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t make it to the top. Especially when, as oft happens within the rainy season(梅雨)a heavy rain began to pour upon me muddying my path to the summit. Yet, somehow, I made it to the peak, initially greeted by the smell of burning incense and the hauntingly beautiful sound of chanting Buddhist monks. I bought an omamori (お守り), or sort of amulet, that infused within it came the scent of incense, with the hopes that it would serve to remind me of the rewards of challenging oneself. Be it mentally, or physically, I pushed myself beyond the limits of what I felt I was truly capable of.

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Mount Misen 弥山

I would like to argue that the acquisition of an unfamiliar language could feel similar to the act of climbing a mountain. Initially, one can become enraptured by the beauty and intricacy of what lays before them, yet the further one gets, the more challenges they face. Personally, my journey of studying the Japanese language is short, and I will have studied the language for three years by mid-autumn. In the time that I’ve studied, I have passed the JLPT N3, and I’m currently studying for the N2, by an outsider’s standpoint I could seem fluent. Yet, I often question the definition of fluency itself, is fluency the act of holding a basic conversation? Is it being able to converse within multiple topics in addition to reading and writing? If it is, I suppose I could be fluent, yet personally I know I have a long long way to go before reaching the proficiency in Japanese that I desire. Having self-studied for more than two years, and taken advanced classes for eight months, I have learned some ‘tools’ for learning Japanese that will be covered below.

Figure Out Your Goals

Like approaching the base of a mountain, beginning your studies in Japanese can be overwhelming, and depending upon your already spoken languages, you may face more or less barriers than others. For example, someone who is a native Mandarin speaker may already have a basic understanding of kanji 漢字 (Chinese characters) that a unilingual English speaker will not have. Arguably, according to this chart, Japanese is actually one of the hardest languages in the world for native English speakers to learn. So before anything, I would argue that you should determine how much effort, time, and money you are willing to put into Japanese, and furthermore why you intend to study it. Through understanding your ultimate goals for the language, as well as the time, money, etc. that you have available to committing to it, you are better equipped to creating a study plan. For example, an individual who wants to make a two-week trip to Japan, and an individual intending upon working within a Japanese company, may have different expectations of how much Japanese they want to learn.

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A wedding in Itsukushima

Become aware of ‘Hitting Walls’

When mountain climbing, I sometimes found that I wanted to give up, that it was too hard, but I had to keep on going in order to reach my goal. Language learning is the same, inevitably there will be times that you feel like your Japanese is improving rapidly, but there will also be times when you feel like you can’t get to the next level. When you reach these walls you need to look back on your goals. For example, speaking basic conversational Japanese may allow for you to get by in everyday life, which may be a goal for some. For people who want to gain a greater proficiency in the language, you can either take a short break, or keep pushing. You will get through it! I promise.

Consider Taking Tests

As a self-studier, or even as a class-taker, sometimes it is difficult to determine what your so-called ‘level’ of Japanese is, or what you should study next. For example, some people may run into walls after completing the Genki textbooks, and other people may find that their university Japanese courses may not be the level that they desire. When it comes to a time like this, I would recommend looking at the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). The JLPT is an (bi)annual certification system run by the Japan Foundation that is held globally, and contains five different levels. Taking the test often involves a vocabulary component, an oral component, and a written comprehension component. There are plenty of textbooks and online resources you can find for studying for the tests, and you can even challenge yourself by trying to take a level higher than you think you are. Through taking the tests and getting the results, you can see what areas you need to study more, be it vocabulary, reading, listening, etc.

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Japanese Drama – GTO

Immersion

I believe that the best way to learn another language is to immerse yourself as much as possible, and you can do this even if you’re not in Japan. For example through,

1. Music

  • Listening to Japanese music while studying, while in the car, while at the gym, etc.
  • Learn the lyrics to the Japanese music you like.

2. Anime, dramas, movies

  • If you’re at a beginner level watching anime, dramas, and movies will help you understand the rhythm and cadence of the language
  • If you’re more advanced you can try watching without subtitles, and write down or look up the meanings of any words that you pick up.
  • You can actually learn a lot of different ways of speaking, dialects, and natural Japanese through watching these! Moreover, you can learn more about Japanese culture.

3. Make Japanese friends or language partners

  • Check if there’s a Japanese/English language meet-up or exchange in your city.
  • Find skype partners online (video not necessary) on websites such as Lang-8
  • Become involved in Japanese related arts or clubs in your area such as karate or tea ceremony
  • Find out about if there’s a Japanese community center in your area and attend any events that they have

4. Reading

  • Beginner/intermediate level learners can check out Easy NHK News for reading practice, and can also try reading books for children
  • Advanced learners can try reading articles in online newspapers, books, or essays
  • A great resource for reading practice is Read Real Japanese

5. Visit or Move to Japan

  • You can take Japanese language classes in places such as Tokyo
  • Many countries offer working-holiday visas to Japan
  • You can teach English on a program such as JET
  • You can apply for the MEXT scholarships if you’re a student or researcher
  • Even visiting Japan temporarily will give you lots of time to practice!

Studying

1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana

  • Hiragana and katakana are two of the basic scripts for Japanese that you need to learn first for reading and writing.

2. Kanji and Vocab

  • You could do rote-memorization, but I would recommend using an app such as anki, memrise, or wanikani
  • Get in the habit of carrying around a notebook so that you can write down new words whenever you learn them.
  • Learn the basics of stroke order, even take a class or two in shodo 書道! (calligraphy) It’ll really help with your understanding of the script.

3. Grammar

  • For beginners, I’d recommend Genki I and Genki II
  • For intermediate and advanced you can try textbooks, or you can buy some of the JLPT textbooks
  • There’s also some great YouTube channels for learning grammar that are super useful if you’re an audio-visual learner!

Above all, don’t give up on your goals. Like climbing a mountain, Japanese studying will be challenging. Moreover, different people have different goals with Japanese and have been studying for different lengths than you have. Everyone has a different path, so try not to discourage yourself by comparing yourself with other learners. We’re all on the same path in learning Japanese, just at different places with different goals, so let’s try to help each other.

I hope this is helpful! If anyone has any other suggestions, tips, or advice for learning Japanese, please comment. :)

Cherry Blossoms

6 Cherry Blossom Pictures You See Every Year

The petals are falling, the blue tarp is being put away and school is about to begin again; yep, it’s post-hanami season. Whether or not you enjoyed the viewing of Japan’s most famous flower this year, chances are, if you have enough ALT friends, you’re already pawing through dozens upon dozens of cherry blossom pictures on Facebook (former ALTs, welcome to the annual gut-wrenching reminder that you’re no longer in Japan). If you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice without fail some combination of these 6 photos in numerous “Hanami 2015” albums:

6. The “Close-up” 

close up

C/O Holly Nwangwa

The star of countless phone backgrounds and cover photos, nothing screams “iPhone photography PhD” quite like this favorite. It has all the makings of an instant classic: the sharp focus of the petals in the foreground; the ones in the back juuust out of focus enough to create that whimsical, dream-like air many get when strolling through the trees; and the pale blue sky to really make those pink petals pop! If this isn’t the star of your hanami album I’ll doubt you actually went in the first place.

5. The “Light-up” Shot 

light up 2

c/o Teresa Chin

Countless parks and other Hanami sites boast not only daytime drunken fun, but guaranteed smartphone bait once the sun goes down; light-up time. The crowds drag themselves from their now-sticky tarp camps to gaze at the same sakura they’ve been staring at all day, but with a twist: INCANDESCENT LIGHTING! Extra-frivolous focus efforts are needed, because nothing is sadder than a blurry light-up picture. Except maybe for number 3.

4. The “Petal-Selfie” 

selfie

c/o Lauren Frederick

What is it about sticking a branch directly in between yourself and the lense that solidifies the legitimacy of the hanami experience? The sly smile that usually accompanies this shot comes from….what exactly? Is there something you’re hiding, besides half of your face? Have you discovered the simplest method of harnessing the mystical powers of sakura? A staple of this selfie is of course the tranquil “smelling” pose, but since, hilariously, sakura lack a strong scent, you’re inhaling nothing but “likes” and photo comments from distant relatives (“Wow! Looks like fun! These flowers are gorgeous. Uncle Ted says hi”).

3. The “Cascading Petal” Shot 

cascading

c/o Eryn Geller

People. We only get to obsess over these pretty pretty things for about 2 weeks a year (or less if it rains, which it always does). This makes it extra disheartening to see ya’ll frantically shaking sakura branches, causing the delicate petals to be violently ripped from their blossoms while you stand underneath the carnage with a huge grin on your face, urging your friend to press the shutter in time. Be that as it may, these photos usually end up pretty nice and I may be guilty of doing this foolish, foolish thing year after year (they’ll grow back…)

2. The “Floating Lantern” Shot 

lantern

c/o Holly Nwangwa

Let’s be real, Sakura are only as pretty as the things put around them; if your Hanami spot doesn’t have expertly planted trees, all is forgiven. But if your local park is lacking these bulbous badboys, it may be time for a layout change. Most, if not all these photos, will be taken in the daytime; the color contrast between the lanterns and the flowers is nicer with daylight, and the more sun you have, the easier it is to see the can of asahi beer you have thrust into the foreground of the photograph. Which brings us to number 1….

1. The “Canal” Shot 

c/o SF Brit

c/o SF Brit

If you’re lucky enough to either live by a canal/river, or have convenient access to one, chances are that the banks will be lined with copious amounts of Sakura trees. Mostly forgotten about the other 11 months of the year, they steal the show once in full bloom, making a sort of canopy over the water. Add this to the fact that fallen petals floating on the surface of the water is one of the most peaceful things you’ll see all year, and it’s no wonder you’re dodging other smartphones trying to get “the shot”.

Joking aside, it’s easy to see why the country goes into a frenzy each sakura season, and why the subject of every single graduation and entrance ceremony focuses on the blooming and corresponding wilting of these flowers. They represent spring, new beginnings, growth, and change.

The themed Starbucks drinks are also a plus.

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Japan Off The Beaten Path – 6 Hidden Gems

“Japan Off The Beaten Path” is one of those phrases that just invites itself to endless stories and beauty .  We have scoured the books and the Internet to come come up with a list of the best hidden gems!  Here are 6 that this great country has to offer.

6. Terraced Stonewalls of Takagai (高開), Tokushima

Picture http://tamamotora.blog41.fc2.com/

Image Source: 美しき風景 

Driving through central Tokushima, you may come across a series of terraced stonewalls in the village of Takagai, one of the 100 Villages of Japan. The stonewalls were laid 400 years ago to optimize land space and build homesand fields on the mountainous slopes.

Today, the stone walls is the locals’ pride and is well-preserved by them. The best time to visit is in spring, when the locals plant shiba-sakura, a kind of bright pink moss on the rock walls, making it quite a spectacle on the mountain top!

5. Kayabuki no Sato (かやぶきの里), Kyoto

Picture from miyamanavi.net

Image Source: Kyoto Miyami Navi

A small village in northern Kyoto, Kayabuki no Sato is famous for its thatched-roof farmhouses, many of which are still in use by the villagers. Although there are not much tourist facilities in the area, visitors who take time to stroll around the village are rewarded with an authentic experience of rural Japan, complete with a beautiful landscape of the mountainous region and the Yura River.

4. Fukuroda Falls (袋田の滝), Ibaraki

Fukuroda Falls in Autumn  (Picture from http://visitibaraki.net/)

Fukuroda Falls in Autumn
(Image Source: Visit Ibaraki)
Fukuroda Falls in Winter  (Picture from http://visitibaraki.net/)

Fukuroda Falls in Winter
(Image Source: Visit Ibaraki)

Fukuroda Falls of Ibaraki is one of the great waterfalls in Japan! It is nicknamed “四度の滝” (“The waterfall of four seasons”) by famous priest Seigyo because of the stunning scenery visitors can enjoy in the four different seasons.

That said, the Fukuroda Falls is the most beautiful in winter when it completely freezes over. There is an annual winter illumination and the brave-hearted can even try ice-climbing!

3. Mt Zao (蔵王山), Yamagata

Picture from JNTO

Image Source: JNTO

Come winter and the SNOW MONSTERS awaken. This is Mt Zao, in Yamagata Prefecture, one of the few places where you can see ice trees due to the heavy snowfall and strong winds.

Although it is a ski resort, non-skiers can also take the ropeway to the top, where you will be awarded with a spectacular view of the snowy landscape. Be warned though, it can get bitterly cold at the top. But not to worry as the outdoor hotsprings of Zao Onsen town awaits you at the bottom. What a way to enjoy the winter! 

2. Sukiji Beach(底地ビーチ), Okinawa

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Picture From Marshalls Abroad

Sukuji beach , an image of paradise on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa. Sukuji beach has very shallow and clear watersand white sandy shore, making it ideal for wading and snorkelling in the warm waters.

About 2km from Sukuji beach is the famous Kabira Bay, a beautiful scenery of white sand and emerald blue sea. Unfortunately, swimming is not allowed due to the presence of jellyfish and strong current. However, you can take a glass-bottom boat to enjoy the beautiful coral reefs and to visit the cultivation sites of the black pearls.

1. The Road of Laputa (ラピュタの道), Kumamoto

Picture from http://kariud.exblog.jp/18140529

Image Source: 九州ロマンチック街道

The Road of Laputa – this driving route earns its nickname from its similar landscape to the floating island of famous animation Laputa, Castle in the Sky.

Located in Kumamoto Prefecture, the scenic route winds around Mt Aso, giving panoramic views of the ridges of Aso area. Driving on the narrow road, it seems like you are driving in the sky! On cloudy days, a sea of clouds appear around the mountains, making it feel as though you are driving through the sky. Be sure to make this drive if you are doing a road-trip in Kyushu!


Interested in seeing more of ‘Japan off the beaten path’?  See parts two and three.

 

If you are worried about travelling on your own in Japan, trippiece (en.trippiece.com) organizes free trips to off-the-grid destinations and events in Japan every weekend. Founded in 2011, trippiece is a social platform for travellers to link up with likeminded people for their next adventure in Japan. Stop wanderlusting and start travelling!

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Sakura Blossoms and Hanami in Japan

One of the most longstanding and recognizable symbols of Japan is the humble cherry blossom tree, or Sakura.

Every year, the Sakura trees blossom into magnificent totems of dark wood contrasted by a dazzling array of pink flowering cherries. These flowers are known as sakura, or sakura blossom.

However, the sakuras bloom for only a very short period of time. In the Tokyo region, they typically blossom at the end of March and reach their full bloom within a week and a half. By the third week, all but a scant few petals remain on the trees as the rest billow in the wind and scatter along the ground.

Thus, they are revered throughout Japan for not only their beauty, but for the enduring metaphor of the ephemeral nature of life that they represent.

This concept is known as `mono no aware`, lit. the pathos of things, and can be thought of as the Japanese term used to describe impermanence. However the nuance of the concept has a more poetic connotation – it is the idea that in the transience of all things, there exists a gentle sadness in its eventual passing and it is in this awareness of impermanence that heightens the appreciation of its beauty. Interestingly, this is a notion that is reflected throughout both historical and contemporary Japanese culture.

Personally, I find this to be a beautiful way of looking at the world. Too often, we get caught up in the responsibilities, obligations and troubles of daily life. We constantly find ourselves thinking about the future and looking forward to the next big thing, never bothering to slow down and just enjoy the moment. If you think about it, the present is all we have. I mean, you hear that a lot but really THINK about it. Each moment is always, forevermore cascading seamlessly into the next. There is only an ever unfolding “now” and the only way to really and truly live is to live in the moment and appreciate it.

The Japanese are pretty good at understanding this, or rather, at least once a year when the feeling is especially poignant during Cherry Blossom season. Every year around this time, people hold Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing parties. Friends, coworkers, and families put out tarps on the floor and hold picnics to view the cherry blossoms and enjoy each other`s company with food and drink.

This year, a bunch of the Gunma JETs and ALTs gathered together for a Hanami at Takasaki Park.  Although this year there was a notable decrease in Hanami parties due to the events of March 11, many people, us included, decided that the best way to show solidarity for Japan was to appreciate the cherry blossoms and reflect on the fleeting nature of life together.

After the hanami, I went for a drive with my friend Jeevy (red car). We drove down the worn down streets of old Japan and as the cherry blossom petals fell over the road, and whisked about in the air around us, we decided to stop for a few pictures.

As i write this, the cherry blossoms are almost gone. Although I`m sad to see them go, I know that they wouldn`t be as beautiful if they never left.

At least we`ve got pictures to look at until next year.

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3/11: The Earthquake…A Day I Will Never Forget

Friday, March 11 2011, was a very sad day. It was the day of the earthquake and tsunami. It was the end of a lot of things.

But it was also a happy day. It was the day of graduation for my Junior High School students. It was a day of new beginnings.

It was a bittersweet day. It was a day they will never forget.

Time is always fleeting. Cherish the moments you have.