Kobein oneweekend (1)

Kobe In One Weekend

Sweet, bustling Kobe!
Oh sweet, bustling Kobe!

Keeping busy with work often makes taking a vacation look like a farfetched dream… And yet, snuggled between each hectic week is a much welcomed break known as “the weekend”. Ah yes, the weekend! Often, it seems like too short of a time to get anything done besides catching up on sleep. And yet weekends are perfect opportunities to travel. Enter “In One Weekend”, a series of posts where I will provide sample itineraries for getting the most out of your weekends based on my own travels. This post’s destination is none other than KOBEKobe is the sixth largest city in Japan, and it has its fair share of cultural, foodie, and shopping delights. Let’s visit Kobe In One Weekend!

Disclaimer: Because Kobe is surrounded by so many other tourist hotspot cities, many people choose to visit the city only transiently. You can have a good day trip in Kobe, provided you pick and choose what you are most interested in doing. However, spending a full weekend in Kobe does not disappoint either!

Day 1 

Morning: Ikuta-Jinja Shrine

Lions guard the entrance to Ikuta shrine.
Lions guard the entrance to Ikuta shrine.

A gorgeous, nearly 2000 year-old shrine that is nestled amongst some of the busier districts of Kobe, Ikuta-Jinja Shrine is a sight to behold. After purifying yourself and praying, you can go behind the main shrine area to find a delightful park, with ample shade and a small stream of water trickling throughout. You can be sure to find yourself relaxed and at peace in this quiet part of town. On some days you might be so lucky as to stumble upon a wedding or festival event.

Afternoon/Lunch: Sannomiya and Motomachi Areas

A sweet tray from Patisserie Tooth Tooth, one of the many bakeries found in Kobe. Also, what's up with the bakery's name?
A sweet tray from Patisserie Tooth Tooth, one of the many bakeries found in Kobe. Also, what’s up with the bakery’s name?

Sannomiya is the most bustling district in Kobe, where you can enjoy shopping, arcades, izakayas, and heaps of bakeries. Both the Sannomiya and Motomachi areas are great for passing the time, and absorbing the city atmosphere. One recommendation is to enjoy either lunch or some sweet treats at one of the many bakeries in this part of town. Also worth seeing is a small park dubbed “Tits Park”, which as the name suggests, contains mounds that resemble certain body parts… This park has become an unofficial meet-up place for many youngsters.

Dinner: Try Kobe Beef in Sannomiya!

Tender, juicy steak topped with fragrant garlic chips. Mmm..
Tender, juicy steak topped with fragrant garlic chips. Mmm..

Surely, even if you have never heard of Hyogo prefecture or know anything else about Kobe, you must have heard about the legend that is Kobe beef. Kobe cows receive daily massages and are beer fed to ensure development of relaxed, tender meat. Some say that the cows listen to classical music as they graze in pasture. As a result of such treatment, Kobe beef is said to be so tender that it can literally melt in your mouth… is this a myth? I’ve got news for you- it isn’t. But if you want to partake in the feast you must pay the (hefty) price. Though pricey, many Kobe beef set menus come with plenty of food to fill your tummy. Eat up!

Evening:  Harborland and Meriken Park

Harborland, beautifully lit up!
Harborland, beautifully lit up!

After stuffing yourself with beef, what better way to shake off the post-meal slug than by taking a walk alongside a harbor? Harborland and Meriken Park are located at Kobe Port, and provide gorgeously lit nighttime views. You can enjoy shopping and dining along the harbor, or you can even ride in a giant neon ferris wheel! Also in this area is Kobe Tower, where you can take in all of Kobe in one sweeping view.

 

Day 2 

Morning: Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum

A life size model of what it looked like to brew sake in pre-industrial Japan.

A life size model of what it looked like to brew sake in pre-industrial Japan.

The Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum is a tad out of the way if you are staying in the main (Sannomiya) area of Kobe, however, it is a worthwhile stop if you are interested in the subject matter. Though small, the museum boasts life-size replicas of brewery equipment and brewery worker figures. After circulating the museum you can enjoy free (FREE!) sake tasting, and even sample the museum’s very own brand of in-house sake. From the museum gift shop you can also buy and ship gift bottles directly to your loved ones. Convenient!

Kitano Foreign Village

An atmospheric jazz bar right nect to the Kitano district.

An atmospheric jazz bar right next to the Kitano district.

Kitano-cho is a unique area where you can visit various residences built by foreigners after the opening of the port of Kobe to the west. Many of the residences are former embassies, and they offer guests the opportunity to explore many different types of architectural styles and world cultures without leaving Japan. Kitano-cho is also filled with shops and cafes specializing in foreign goods and foods. Also in the area is the Trick Art museum and a number of art galleries.

As an added bonus, you can return later in the day or evening to try out one of the many live jazz bars in the area.

Afternoon option: Nunobiki Herb Gardens and Ropeway

Not too far from the Kitano area are the Nunobiki Herb Gardens, equipped with a ropeway from which you can see the Nunobiki waterfall, the Nunobiki Gohonmatsu dam, and various other beautiful Kobe sights. The area also boasts a number of specialty cafes, herbal shops, and even a herbal foot bath.

Afternoon option: Cat Café

A pensive Kobe Cat cafe' employee gazes out the window...

A pensive Kobe Cat cafe’ employee gazes out the window…

If the ropeway sounds exhausting to you, perhaps you would prefer to relax at a cat café. Though cat cafés are by no means exclusive to Kobe, they are one of the quirkier styles of cafes which can be found in the area. For an hourly fee, you can play with cats and order various café drinks or sometimes even parfaits and sweets. If you are not a fan of cats, this is not recommended. Also, keep in mind that many of the cats are sleepy and unless you purchase some of the available food, they may be very hesitant to play with you.

This cat cafe' employee isn't too thrilled about being confronted with a cat toy.

This cat cafe’ employee isn’t too thrilled about being confronted with a cat toy.

Ever wondered what the underside of a cat looks like while its sitting down? Wonder no more.

Ever wondered what the underside of a cat looks like while its sitting down? Wonder no more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner/Evening: Nankinmachi (Chinatown)

Momo manju- peach shaped bun filled with red bean paste in Chinatown.

Momo manju- peach shaped bun filled with red bean paste in Chinatown.

They say to save the best for last… and if you’re a foodie then Kobe’s Chinatown, Nankinmachi, is certainly amongst the best culinary experiences in the city. Nankinmachi boasts vibrant, colorful streets filled with street food vendors. Choose from Chinese style ramen bowls, Peking duck wraps, shumai (dim sum), cha han (fried rice), karage (fried chicken), and more. This is also a great area to buy omiyage, or souvenirs, and to observe beautiful Chinese décor and architecture.

 

Hopefully you now have some ideas about what Kobe has to offer. Just know that there is so much more out there for you to explore, so feel free to tweak this itinerary to your liking, and to remove or add days depending on your preferences. Happy weekending!

 

Fortunes at Ikuta shrine.

Fortunes at Ikuta shrine.

Sannomiya area streets.

Sannomiya area streets.

Shrine near Hakutsuku Sake Brewing Museum.

Shrine near Hakutsuku Sake Brewing Museum.

A Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum figure "hard at work" labeling sake barrels.

A Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum figure “hard at work” labeling sake barrels.

Meow from Kobe!

Meow from Kobe!

Beautiful gateway leading to Nankinmachi.

Beautiful gateway leading to Nankinmachi.

Vibrantly colored Nankinmachi.

Vibrantly colored Nankinmachi.

 

  Next entry: Osaka In One Weekend

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!

OKI COver

Escape to the Oki Islands

If you ask the average Japanese person a question about the Oki Islands, they might say, “Where?” However, the Oki Islands of Shimane Prefecture have plenty more to offer to anyone who seeks them.

Located only a two hour ferry ride from Matsue and Sakaiminato, Oki’s four inhabited and 180 uninhabited islands are like no other place on earth. In fact, they are so geologically unique that they became a UNESCO supported Geopark in 2013. These islands are filled with a rugged natural beauty, created after years of volcanic activity, erosion and weathering. The four large islands are Dogo, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima and Chiburijima.

Like the Greek-Irish travel writer Lafcadio Hearn, who explored Japan in the early twentieth century, my husband, Jesse and I were determined to go to Oki, despite threats of an imminent typhoon. The ferry left the harbour at Shichirui Port under cloudless blue skies. The Oki Kisen ferry was an experience. One staff member looked at our tickets and motioned us to the right. What we saw shocked us. There were no seats; only large, carpeted sections. Already, many people were sprawled out in every available space. In true Japanese fashion, we slipped off our shoes and sat on the floor. The air inside the air-conditioned cabin smelled of coffee, cola, peanuts and beer. Some passengers were already asleep, their heads resting on pillows that looked like brown bricks. Children were squealing, shouting, laughing, playing card games and colouring. The older folk chatted, read, slept or drank beers.  Soon, the floor began to rumble. The boat gently rocked to and fro as it cut through the ocean. I fell asleep, propped up against my backpack. Everyone else soon settled down for a nap and the noise faded.

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We disembarked at Hishiura Port, Nakanoshima (Ama Town) and headed to Oki Gyu Ten, one of the few places that serves Oki beef on these islands. Oki cattle are raised on the islands and feed on its lush, green vegetation. Oki beef is some of the best gourmet beef I have ever eaten. It’s tender, fresh and delicious. In fact, most of this premium beef is auctioned off in Tokyo markets and Oki calves are often sent to Kobe, where they eventually become the famous Kobe beef.

DSC_0999

After lunch, we rented bikes to explore the island. First, we cycled to Rainbow Beach, which is very close to Hishiura Port.  Then we climbed further inland to find Oki Shrine, which was built to honour Emperor Gotoba. This nobleman was one of many who were exiled to the Oki Islands during the Middle Ages. The streets were virtually empty. In the heat of the early afternoon, cicadas trilled unseen from trees and shrubs that sprouted from the nearby hillsides. A trio of junior high school boys passed us. “Konnichiwa,” they said. “Konnichiwa,” we replied, wiping the sweat from our brows. As we pedalled faster, the wind whipped up. We coasted up and down, past the deep blue sea, vibrant green fields, and white and brown houses. Oki Shrine was deserted. A bunch of hydrangeas greeted us, their purple heads drowsing in the heat.

We headed back to the port and climbed aboard the Amanbow underwater viewing boat. Our guide, Honda san, spoke mainly in Japanese. However, he included some English words to check that we understood what he was saying. Fishermen in nearby boats waved at us. One man was fishing off a rock in the middle of the sea. We approached three solitary rocks called Saburo-Iwa, or The Three Brothers. They looked naturally picturesque, perfectly arranged from the tallest to the smallest.

Amanbow underwater viewing boat

Later on, we descended the stairs into the bottom of the boat. Here we peeked through square windows cut on the boat’s sides. Schools of tiny fish swam past us. Tiny bubbles trailed across the windows. A single branch of seaweed glided away in slow motion. We pressed our noses against the glass of this giant aquarium. Rays of sunlight streamed through the murky depths, flashing on silver-skinned fish. Then, something amazing happened. The crew begin to drop round pellets of fish food into the water. A host of fish suddenly appeared: huge silvery ones, rainbow coloured fish, even striped fish. They darted to and fro, swooped above and below, their mouths open to catch any stray food.

Candle Rock Kuniga Coastline

After a couple of hours, we left Nakanoshima for Nishinoshima. Nishinoshima is the most popular of the Oki Islands. Its mountainous landscape is dotted with hundreds of Oki cattle and horses. As the afternoon waned, we headed to the Kuniga Lookout. Here, we saw the beautiful Kannon Iwa or Candle Rock gilded by faint yellow light. The dying sun slowly dropped directly above the rock so that it resembled a golden flame atop a candle.

fresh seafood

After sunset, we arrived at the retro-feel, family-run hotel Kuniga-so for dinner. The table was laden with everything imaginable: fresh seafood including huge Iwagaki oysters, white squid, and scallops, pickled abalone, fresh sashimi, hot fish stew, soba salad and sizzling Oki beef slices.

horses at Matengai Cliff

The next morning, we headed to Matengai Cliff. The car climbed and climbed further into the hills. Suddenly, we turned the corner. There were three strawberry blond horses nibbling grass on the hill. Simultaneously, they looked up and stared at us. The smell of horse dung hovered in the air. When they realised that we were harmless, they continued to nibble the shorn grass. Green mountains and blue sea spread behind them, creating a breath-taking, picture-perfect postcard moment.  The wind picked up, rocking our parked car gently to and fro.

On the top of Matengai Cliff, the wind was so strong that we forget the searing summer heat. Some cows stared at us, but we were armed with bamboo walking sticks to defend ourselves if they got angry. The coastline here was too beautiful; large pieces of green headland jutting out into the calm blue sea. I wished I had brought a book. It was the perfect place to read all day. Further afield, cattle and horses grazed calmly. It was so surreal that it looked like a painting.

Tsutenkyo Arch Kuniga coastline

Then, we drove back to the Kuniga Lookout.  Here, the strangely formed rocks or Tenjyo-kai (Heavenly Area) looked different under the late morning sun. The coastline here, also one of the top 100 walking tracks in Japan, is perfect for gentle strolls and dipping your toes into the ocean. One of the highlights of this coastal walk is Tsutenkyo Arch. The wind and waves have stripped the rocks into a dramatic, multi-coloured arch through which the ocean flows.

Yurahime Shrine

On the way back to Urago, we passed Yurahime Shrine, which honours Yurahime no mikoto, the goddess of fishing and maritime safety. Every autumn and winter, thousands of squid (ika) flood the inlet in front of the shrine. According to local legend, when the goddess was returning to Oki by boat, some squid in the area nibbled her fingers. She was quite offended so every year, several squid come back to the same spot to apologise for their terrible behaviour to the goddess. The squid story made us hungry, so we headed to a small but busy restaurant in Urago. At Asuka restaurant, Jesse ordered a steaming bowl of ika don and I downed a plate of delicious ika curry.

Mimiura Campsite

As the day lengthened, the heat climbed to an unbearable 35 degrees Celsius. We headed to the nearest beaches, Sotohama and Mimiura. Both were completely different. Sotohama was easy to find. It had a lovely sandy beach and a clear, wide bay perfect for swimming and snorkelling. On the other hand, Mimiura was a bit trickier to discover. Armed with our basic tourist map, we drove down a non-descript road off the main street and went further inland through a dense pine forest. Soon, the ocean peeked through the top of the trees and we came upon a hidden cove. Although the narrow beach was strewn with large pebbles and stones, the water was calm and aquamarine. Some kayaks lay on the shore and a few tents were perched along the beach.

As we surveyed the scene, a man ran up to us. “Hey!” He faced Jesse. “Handsome face!” he said. “You go swimming?” We shook our heads. “Chotto nihongo…jikan,” I said, pointing to my wrist. Not enough time. “Ah.” He pointed to his chest. “Eigo…sukoshi,” pinching his thumb and forefinger together. “Where from?” Karibukai,” we replied. He roared and shook Jesse’s hands vigorously. We wished we could stay but quickly hopped back into the car to catch the ferry back to the mainland.
For more information:

Nishinoshima Tourism Association

Ama Town Tourism Association

Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh

This post originally appeared in the author’s blog, Hot Foot Trini.

 

Why Nagoya isInfinitelyBetter than Tokyo

Why Nagoya is Infinitely Better than Tokyo

I just took a nostalgic 3-day weekend trip from Tochigi to Nagoya, and after being separated from the city I have really come to know and love, and spending the evening in Tokyo, I am going to ever so biasly declare as the title of this piece states: Nagoya is one of the best places to live in Japan.

Before, let me explain myself, seeing as I probably just ticked off about 30% of Japan (seeing as roughly that percentage of peope live in the Greater Tokyo area. 10% actually live in Tokyo-Tokyo, which is only 0.6% of the total land available in Japan. Point #1). I need to make a couple things clear:

1. I am clearly biased. Nagoya is the only place I have lived (traveling is a different story) in Japan for over a month, so obviously I know it better than, say, Tokyo, which I will henceforth bash unabashedly.

2. If you are from a place like Seoul or New York and insane urban sprawl is your thing, you can probably just stop here. This piece is most likely not for you, and I understand that. I, however, am from nowhere near insane urban sprawl, and therefore find it unattractive and unnecessary. I will henceforth bash it unabashedly.

3. My statement is that Nagoya is one of the best places to live in Japan. Every place has its merits, and, while I just said that I’m biased, I can actually be pretty fair (for example, while I do agree with the article in the first paragraph up there on the whole, there are a few things I don’t quite agree with). Tokyo does have some great qualities to it, and Nagoya has some points that don’t quite stand up to places like Tokyo (which, also can be a merit; see point #7 below). However, my purpose in writing this article is to be, as aforementioned, somewhat biased.

 

Now let me begin for real. I just incorperated point #1 into the above, so:

Point #2: Trains in Nagoya make sense. As with any move to a big city, you may look at the public transportation map and wonder if you will ever actually learn it comfortably. Come to Nagoya, my friend, and you will. You may not learn or ever need to go to every stop, but after living there for a couple months, someone will say, “Hey, let’s meet up at Higashi Betsuin and eat some awesome yakiniku,” and you’ll be like, “Hello my friend, Higashi Betsuin you say? Where is that? Oh, you know, it sounds familiar, and I’ve probably either passed it before or just randomly seen it starting at the subway map line waiting for the train,” and your buddy will say, “Oh you dare say? It is on the purple whirly loopamadoogle line (i.e. Meijo Line),” and you’ll be like, “Cool bro. I’ll meet you there.”

Nagoya subway map

Now switch this to Tokyo. Your friend will be like, “Hey, let’s go to 本所吾妻橋駅 and eat some yakiniku,” and you’ll be like, “本所吾妻橋? How do you pronounce that?” and your buddy will be like, “Lolz I don’t know, I’ve just lived here for a year,” and you’ll be like, “Sure, let me get out the Google because there’s no way I’ll figure out how to get there from here in a reasonable amount of time lolz.”

Tokyo subway map. Enough said.

My point is, even people who have lived in Tokyo for years (and I’m not just saying this, I’ve asked) still don’t know how to get to places they don’t normally go to in a decent amount of time. Do you transfer at the blue line or the green line or the pink line or the dark pink line, and will it take an hour to get to just to try out a new restaurant? Don’t even get me started on transferring lines in Tokyo.

Tokyo, let me just sit you down and tell you. Leaving the station, walking 2 blocks, and going down into a completely different and non-connected station is not a transfer. I don’t care if you’re a different color line. I’m looking at you, Kuramae. Also, Tokyo, what is up with you needing to leave the ticket gate to transfer? What? Just why?

No, Nagoya doesn’t do that. Often times, even if you’re switching companies, you don’t need to leave the ticket gate, much less the station itself–there are some where you don’t even need to leave the train (ex. Tsurumai Line of the subway to Meitetsu Line of the above-ground trains)! Plus, this depends on where you live and if you just missed the train or not, but often you can cross the city in about 30 minutes. Public transportation is extremely convenient in Nagoya, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a place that doesn’t have a station in a reasonable amount of walking distance, yet, it just makes sense.

 

Point #3: Nagoya basically has everything Tokyo has, just more portable. And by portable, I mean of course it’s smaller than what Tokyo has, but all the important parts are there, PLUS, again branching off the size thing, they’re all basically in one main place. Nagoya has 2 main downtown areas (Nagoya Station area to Sakae) that are pretty well connected (i.e. you can walk the span if you feel like it on a nice day) for shopping, eating, and partying. Nagoya also hosts one of the main sumo tournaments in the country and has a major baseball team.

Just your friendly, neighborhood Storm Trooper walking down downtown Nagoya.

Just your friendly, neighborhood Storm Trooper walking around downtown Nagoya.

Let me highlight:

Osu: A large shopping arcade that is basically Harajuku meets Akihabara and they have a teenager. Smaller size, all the sass. You want to see people walking around with giant pink hair or looking like a sexy vampire from the manga you’ve been reading? Done. You want to see a man on stilts juggle pins on fire in front of a gian maneki-neko statue? Done. You want to buy some awesome flashy jewelry that you’ll never find a chance to wear but is awesome anyways? Done. You want to go to a maid cafe? Done. You want to buy some electronics at a 7+ storey video game store that Akihabara also has? Done. You want to see a local AKB48 (in our case, SKE48) show? (You’ll need to go to a different part of Nagoya but) Done. Not related to Akiba or Harajuku because, you know, they don’t have this, but you want to eat some of the best pizza in the world? Done.

I don't even know why you're here, but I'm glad you are.

I don’t even know why you’re here (Osu), giant silver man, but I’m glad you are.

Sakae: Basically, this is Shibuya. You’ve got your high-end Coach and other places you’ll never be able to afford alongside your giant department stores, 1 of 2 major underground shopping malls, trendy nightclubs, Forever 21, Old Navy, and H&M/etc. popular fashion brands from home, as well as your 4 story Uniqlo.

Did I mention that Nagoya’s science museum has the largest planetarium in the world, and is also shaped like the robot from the Incredibles?

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Villan, or giant planetarium? Hmm…

Giant green Buddha statute? Also check.

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Tougan-ji near Motoyama Station

“But wait,” you say, “Kawasaki, just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo, has the Kanamara Matsuri, i.e. the giant penis festival. Beat that Nagoya.”

Oh let us.

Honen Matsuri in Komaki, just a stone’s throw away from Nagoya.

For those of you reading this in front of little kids or your boss, sorry for not warning you, but what’s done is done. Anyways, basically, there you go….but wait! There’s more! Not only is there a penis shrine in Aichi, but we also have a vagina-stone shrine! So yeah, take that Tokyo.

Oogata Shrine in Inuyama

You say Tokyo Tower, I say Nagoya Tower. Sure, you all got Sky Tree over there, I give you that, but I’m partial to Taipei 101 anyways.

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Nagoya Tower

 

Point #4: Despite being a big city, it’s so green! There are big parks and little parks everywhere, and even many of the streets are lined with plants, and trees are planted in random corners of downtown. Being from the Hoosier state and missing my bountiful cornfields, this is something that’s super appreciated. It has the feel of being a large city but without the claustrophobia.

Why hello random tree around the corner of a building downtown.

Why hello random tree around the corner of a building downtown.

More downtown Nagoya green.

More downtown Nagoya green.

See, from what I’ve observed, Tokyo barely tries. Places like Utsunomiya try. I think during my daily commute, I see a couple small trees surrounded by concrete and buildings. It’s trying in a 中途半端 way, but Nagoya actually succeeds.

Downtown Utsunomiya. If you look hard, you will find a bush.

Plus, if you’re really sick of the city life, you’re just a hop on a train away from getting into some good, refreshing countryside.

Taking a walk around Toyota City, right outside Nagoya.

Taking a walk around Toyota City, right outside Nagoya.

Point #5: It’s not as big as places like Tokyo or Osaka, but that doesn’t mean it’s measly and you’ll bore of it after a few months. Nagoya is home to just under 3 million people, with Greater Nagoya (Chukyo Metropolitan Area) rolling in at about 9 million (the 3rd most populous metro area in the country, and 50th in the world), holding about 7% of Japan’s population (thanks, Wikipedia). There are still so many areas, I’ve never visited, so many restaurants I’ve never eaten at, and so many events that keep things interesting. For example, although I tried, I have never yet been to Oogata Shrine because things just didn’t work out that day. Things stay interesting, but at a manageable size. Furthermore, it’s still a large, cosmopolitan city with a nice amount of diversity. You’ll have other foreigners to make friends with and means of sharing your culture with other populations, and this also means you’ll probably meet Japanese friends as well.

Have you been to restaurant Garuva yet?

Have you been to restaurant Garuva yet?

Point #6: “Why are you going to Nagoya? There’s like, nothing there,” one of my Japanese juku teachers questioned me in distaste while I was living in Taipei right before heading over to Nagoya to study for the first time. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond, but after having lived there for a while, I can now puff out my chest and state boldly as a reply: EXACTLY! Because it basically has everything that Tokyo/Osaka has, just slightly scaled down, that means there’s not much tourism in the city–which is actually a good thing! This means that most of the foreign (or non-foreign) people living in Nagoya aren’t stupid, obnoxious or demanding tourists–they’re people actually living there. This means you don’t get the stupid foreigner treatment you’d get in other places, like Tokyo or Kyoto. This doesn’t mean you don’t get foreigner treatment at all–after all, this is still Japan–but you’re not so much treated as a tourist, and you can really experience Japan much better this way. For example, I have rarely ever been handed and English menu in Nagoya, whereas I was balked at for requesting the full Japanese menu at a restaurant in Tokyo because, you know, why would the white girl want to look at the full non-English menu, and not just the English menu with only 30% of the selection in awkwardly-translated English? While this may be daunting at first if you don’t have much Japanese under your belt, it’s so rewarding because for one, you can increase your language abilities much more quickly by it being expected of you to some extent. And I mean extent, because after all, it’s still Japan, and even in Nagoya, I had people flip out in excitement once / give me the “hold the phone, I ain’t got no English ability to communicate with this here customer” look of terror before I said 2 sentences and then frustratedly commenced with ”日本語を9年間勉強してるんですから… (I’ve been studying Japanese for 9 years, so…).” In any case, to say it bluntly, you’re in their country–you should at least try to learn some of their language–and Nagoya is the perfect place to do so–not to mention there’s about a bajillion (and counting!) universities in the immediate area to do so at.

 

Point #7: It’s where the history is at. Do the names Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Oda Nobunaga sound familiar? If so, then congratulations! You at least know the very basics of core Japanese history, and these 3 important dudes were all born and based in the Nagoya area! Therefore, if you have any interest in history, Nagoya is chock-full of it, starting from its famous Nagoya Castle. Even if you’re not interested in history, it still means Nagoya has some super awesome festivals because of its historical importance. Furthermore, it’s right down the road from Inuyama, which has the oldest original wooden castle in the entire country (which, since Japan was facing internal wars for centuries and then thoroughly fire bombed during WWII, let me tell you, that’s no easy feat).

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Inuyama celebrating its 380th annual festival.

Not to mention Nagoya is also home to Atsuta Shrine, which is up there ranking in importance with the famous Ise Shrine.

Atsuta Shrine

Point #8: It doesn’t have everything, and that’s okay! I’ve kept saying that Nagoya takes the best of Tokyo and puts it into a bite-sized, giant hunk of a city. However, of course there are some things Osaka and Tokyo have that Nagoya doesn’t–but that gives you reason to leave the city every now and then and go out traveling! Why bother leaving Tokyo if you can just get the same thing in the city? It’s still exciting to go someplace new, and better yet, Nagoya has the perfect location to do so, being right in between the Kansai and Kanto areas, so you can just hop on a bus, local train, or bullet train, and in a few hours you’ll be in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, or wherever else!

Nagoya=smack dab in the middle of Japan.

Looking to go somewhere a bit farther? Nagoya’s airport is located right outside the city, easily accessible by train, and hosts a variety of local and international air companies, including a large pick of low cost carriers! (They also have a Costco pretty close by, FYI.)

 

Now I can probably go on and on about this, but I’ll leave my main points at this. You don’t need to love Nagoya like I do, nor do you need to love my hyperboles (or are they?), but that’s okay. I love traveling Japan and would love to get more experience living in different parts of the country, but after living in very different parts of the world, to me, Nagoya will always be my beloved home in Japan (in case I didn’t make that clear enough).

 

Seaside Style Imaihama Beach

Seaside Style at Imaihama Beach

(Imaihama Beach, Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka Prefecture)

It’s summertime in Shizuoka, and if you’re anywhere inside the prefecture that can only mean one thing: time to go to Izu. The Izu peninsula is located within Shizuoka prefecture, towards the east where it separates itself from the mainland of Japan as it dips into the Pacific Ocean. As you can imagine, Izu is littered with gorgeous beaches, but it is also home to many natural reserves, ecological parks, and to more onsen (hot springs) than you may think are necessary. It’s an obvious choice for a vacation spot.

Izu, a Peninsula Paradise

Imaihama Beach, located on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka prefecture.

Imaihama Beach, located on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka prefecture.

When I first moved to the Shizuoka I knew I pretty much had to visit Izu, but this isn’t exactly as easy as it sounds. How do you know what beach to visit when almost the entire location is a coastline? Well, to be honest the answer is that you don’t really know… Or rather, there isn’t one correct answer. With so many choices, the decision is up to you. You can visit a recommended or popular beach or you can be spontaneous and choose a more secluded one at random to explore (recommended, but risky).

My decision on where to go was made in the name of fashion, to attend a beachside t-shirt fair at Imaihama beach, in the lower portion of Izu- but more on that later!

Atami, a Literal Hot Spot

Scenic views abound on the southbound trains from Atami.

Scenic views abound on the southbound trains from Atami.

The easiest way for most people to get to Izu, regardless of provenance or desired destination within Izu, is by taking the Shinkansen bullet train. At a maximum operating speed of 320 km/h, this train is not joking around: it will get to where it needs to get… and it will do so quickly. There is a Shinkansen station at Atami, an onsen resort city located on the northern portion of Izu. This is likely where you want your Shinkansen to end up as it is located near the beginning of Izu, and from there you can take local trains further south along the peninsula.

Hot, hot Atsuo. Get 'im while he's atsui!

Hot, hot Atsuo. Get ‘im while he’s atsui!

Atami itself is a worthwhile vacation spot, by the way. For one, the city mascot is an older, balding man with fairy wings and a wand named Atsuo, which is strikingly similar to “atsui”, the Japanese word for hot. He can be found on anything from pastries to socks. Clearly this must be a sign of a good city, right?

Atami is well known for its onsen. Even if you are only stopping by for a short time in between trains as I was, you can enjoy a free dip in an ashiyu, which is a sort of mini-onsen for your fee. One is right outside the station! Also outside the station is a lively marketplace where you can purchase omiyage, or souvenirs. Popular Shizuoka prefecture omiyage include green tea, wasabi, shirasu (dried baby anchovy) amongst other things.

View from a local Izu train heading from Atami towards Shimoda.

Yaaas, view!

 

As Atami was not my final destination on this particular trip to Izu, I still needed to get further south by using a local train, which ran along the east coast of Izu from Atami all the way down to Izukyu Shimoda at the very bottom of the peninsula. If you run along the full course this trip can take close to two hours, but believe it or not, this is actually a good thing. The views from the train are breathtakingly beautiful. As you ride along a mountain’s edge, you can enjoy seeing the vast ocean, colorful towns, gorgeous green forests, and golden beaches. Geeking out is inevitable.

 

Imaihama, a Hidden Jewel

View from the Chitoseya guest house. As close to the ocean as you can get without needed a boat!

View from Chitoseya guest house. As close to the ocean as you can get without a boat!

It took about an hour and a half or so to reach my destination, Imaihama-Kaigan station. As I got off the train I was greeted by green mountains and salty sea air- at long last! My travel companion and I had a reservation at Chitoseya, a small guest house right on the beach and less than a 5 minute walk from the station. After being warmly welcomed by one of the owners and served a refreshing fruit juice, we were lead up to an adorable Japanese-style room, complete with tatami mat flooring,  shoji paper screen windows, and a futon closet where our bedding was located. The view from the room was not too shabby either!

 

Two D.O.C. specialties: heaven sent curry rice and the king of all jerk chicken. I still dream about these dishes sometimes...

Two D.O.C. specialties: heaven sent curry rice and the king of all jerk chicken.

Across from the guest house was a small restaurant called D.O.C. (Down on the Cave), which specialized in jerk chicken and curry rice and carried local Izu beer. The many kitschy-cool Americana posters and knick knacks that adorned the restaurant walls created a relaxed vibe that might even have been slightly nostalgic to the American within me. The food itself was shockingly good, and I’ll admit I had the jerk chicken not once, but twice before leaving Imaihama…

 

View of Imaihama Beach

View of Imaihama Beach and corresponding beach bums.

Imaihama beach itself is an incredibly small yet lively beach. On both sides of the beach you can see sprawling green mountains, and on the beach itself there is a rocky area where people can go search for shells or small aquatic creatures. One thing I did not realize about Japanese beaches is that you can actually have anything from ramen to yakitori while on the beach itself, so of course we proceeded to engorge ourselves on deliciously fattening and sodium-filled foods. And beer. All without any regrets.

ANAGURA, a Chill Cave with Chill Vibes

Stariway leading up to the unassuming BAR ANAGURA, featuring stray kitten-san.

Stariway leading up to the unassuming BAR ANAGURA, featuring stray kitten-san.

The small, seaside town of Imaihama closes down rather early, which can be a bummer if you’ve traveled from far away. However, I had come to visit BAR ANAGURA, which actually opens up around the time the whole town closes down. The unassuming bar can be reached after climbing up a shadowy flight of stairs and entering a cave- that’s right, the whole bar is inside a cave! The venue is cool, edgy, and quite literally very “hole in the wall”. I’d even go so far as to call it “grungy” if it weren’t for the whirlwind of bebop jazz that bounced off the walls. Ambiance game strong, ANAGURA.

During the month of August BAR ANAGURA hosted AT THE TAVES IN, a t-shirt fair featuring 13 designs from 13 individuals in various industries, from film to fashion. Japanese designers, actors, models, and artists developed t-shirt designs exclusive to this event. The t-shirts were exhibited in the back of the bar, and hung from clotheslines to clearly feature each design. I was very happy to be able to visit Izu while the event was ongoing, as it was a main motivator for choosing Imaihama. My personal favorite design was the “IZUFORNIA” print tee, which I found to be a hilarious play on words (this may only have been because I’m a dork now living in Shizuoka, though…).

Tees just waiting to be purchased. "Pick me! Pick me!", you can hear each design exclaim.

Tees just waiting to be purchased. “Pick me! Pick me!”, you can hear each design exclaim.

Though I may have come for the t-shirts, I stayed for the food (surprise!). ANAGURA’s menu is so varied and rich that you just have to try more than one thing, as we certainly did not hesitate to do. From the infamous jerk chicken and curry sausage to a perfectly seasoned and cooked sazae or “turban shell” (a sort of sea snail), I could not stop eating. The drink menu was far longer, however, and it featured such beverages as grapefruit beer, oolong sochu, a couple of ANAGURA original mixtures, and much, much more.

Closing thoughts…

Ah, the sea...

Ah, the sea…

After a long night of t-shirt buying, eating, and drinking, we spent the next day exploring the small seaside town, and then lazily lounging on the beach until it was time to head back to the other side of Shizuoka.

All in all, visiting Izu is what you make of it. You can visit anything from a Teddy Bear Museum in Ito, to a geological park in Shimoda, or just lounge around and have a low-key beach day while eating all your worries away. Whatever you may choose, I recommend visiting this beautiful beachy peninsula at least once during your stay in Japan. And better yet- if you choose to visit Imaihama beach don’t forget to get your fill of jerk chicken!

Happy exploring! Mata ne (see you later)!

Zao Kitsune Mura

What Does The Fox Say?: Zao Kitsune Mura in Miyagi Prefecture

(This, apparently.)

In an attempt to start knocking some items off my bucket list and travel Japan more, I decided to take advantage of the three day weekend and go up to Miyagi prefecture and stay around Sendai. I Shinkansen-ed up there and it actually didn’t take that long (about a couple hours). Prior to that, I discovered a machine at my station that sells Shinkansen tickets so I don’t actually have to interact with a human and show them how utterly incompetent I am at living in Japan. Knowing that this beautiful machine exists, I will definitely be traveling a lot more. Armed with the tickets and my appropriate shirt, I was off to Miyagi!

I was about to find out!

I was about to find out!

Despite derping a couple times on the Shinkansen (sitting in the reserved section without a reserved ticket and being on the opposite end of the platform for the non-reserved seats), I made it to Sendai and was picked up by a good friend to go to the Zao Kitsune Mura (Zao Fox Village). One of the J-Vloggers I follow (Rachel and Jun) recently went here and upon watching their videos, I was more than excited to be there. I love foxes (they are like dogcats) and going to the fox village was one of the first things on my Japan bucket list.

dogcats

This was not a fox at the village but I seriously wished it was.

We arrived, paid to go in, and was in…paradise? I may have played up the Zao Kitsune Mura in my head a little because I expected it to be roaming with foxes. Instead, the first thing I encounter was foxes in cages, either hoisted up attached to a wall or on the ground, and/or dog collared and chained to a tree or doghouse. I walked around the cages and noticed that some of the foxes were either sleeping or pacing around (or sometimes playing with each other if they had a roommate). Don’t get me wrong; I was still happy to see foxes, but seeing them in cages made me feel sad for them. Plus there were also guinea pigs and rabbits there for some reason…Maybe food? I don’t know.

We walked at one cage and read that you can cuddle with a baby fox for ¥300. ¥300?! Basically stealing the fox! Right when the time slot came up, we immediately got in line and in no time, had a baby fox in our hands. I noticed that the younger or smaller it was, the more relaxed it seemed. I held a black and white fox that was so docile and chill. It rested its wittle head on my arm and almost took a little snooze. It was so cute! I didn’t want to give it back but I had to. Not long after, I had another fox sitting in my lap. Well, “sitting”. It was so restless and just wanted to be put down that it kept moving. It was probably sick of being held by strangers and was just over it. I gave that fox back quickly because I was afraid of dropping it and setting it free (although I am sure it would have loved it).

Just chilling his wittle head for a nap

Just chilling his wittle head for a nap

After the cuddling, we went into the main area where I thought the entire village was made of. It was a large open space where foxes could roam around, sniffing trees, drinking water from the tap, and pray at the mini fox shrine (because of course there is a fox shrine in the fox village). We were told not to approach the foxes and just walk as though we owned the joint so we did. We walked around and snapped some photos of the foxes that were wake. Most of them were asleep or not in the mood to entertain humans. After walking around and taking pictures of either sleeping or diva looking foxes (because trust me, there were some), we entered into this raised platform area to throw some treats to the foxes. Upon entering, you could purchase little fox treats (which was basically dog treats) for ¥100 a bag. Since I am one to try to milk things for all its worth, I doubled the amount of treats in the bag by ripping the pieces in half. For some reason, I was the only one to think of that in our group…

Hide and seek fox

Where’s Waldo fox

 This part was the highlight of the fox village. So many cute foxies running up to get some treats, looking up at your with their big puppydog eyes, and waiting patiently for you to toss them something. There was a chubby one that was my instant favorite (I love chubby fluffy animals) as well as one that looked like it walked through a bad neighborhood and got mugged. At the end of the feeding session, we thought we taught them tricks by making them sit or catching food in their mouths. We tried our best to connect with these foxes.

After depleting my fox treat stash, it was time to head out. We paid a visit to the fox shrine really quick and made our way out of the fox freedom area. We went into the gift shop and proceeded to try to buy everything with a fox on it in sight. Because I didn’t want to carry too much going back home, I didn’t get anything too outrageous (stickers and magnets). After the gift shop, my friend and I head out to explore what Miyagi and Sendai had to offer in the days after.

All in all, the Zao Kitsune Mura was a really cute place…but only because of the foxies. If you are an animal rights activist, you might find this place disturbing or extremely depressing. I am definitely all for animal rights, so I was a little saddened to see many foxes in cages and not roaming around the open area. But for all I know, there is a rotation of what foxes get to go out and which ones must stay in cages. Would I recommend this place to visit? If you like foxes, definitely. But personally, it does not merit another visit (or at least one that I would travel all the way to Miyagi for). I came, I saw, I held and fed foxies.

Hmm...maybe.

Hmm…maybe.

 BONUS FOX GIFS!

love me

Love me?

It is derping so hard.

It is derping so hard.

How to Pack for JET (sorta)

Every JET

When I think about packing for this move, I try and think about what I need and what I want… And then I got get a drink. And then after I’m done drinking and crying, I go back to thinking. How the heck do I pack for a multiple year move in just 3 suitcases?

Once I’ve processed all the liquor I just put into my blood, I try to remember that I’ve done this before I moved to Japan in 2009 to study abroad, so I’ve had to pack like this before. But there are two key differences between this and that trip.

Difference the first: I am going for much longer this time. When I was studying abroad, I didn’t have to worry too much if I left something in Canada. I was only going to be there for about 9 months. I didn’t need my cherished childhood toy, nor my book collection. I could safely leave things in Canada and return to them later. With JET and this move, that’s not really the case. I do not know when I will be returning to Canada. This means I need to be very careful with what I pack and what I leave, since those decisions are basically written in stone.

Difference the second: I am no studying abroad. This is actually a nice save here. When I was studying abroad, I was inclined to bring this and that textbook with me. I needed a large amount of Japanese language materials, but I also had other materials I needed to bring with me for other disciplines. As a JET, much of that is less important. Sure, I’m still going to be learning Japanese (and in a proficiency level I’m less comfortable with), but I’m not doing it formally. I can also find some of these materials locally should I need them. So sorry, Genki textbook, but you gotta stay behind. But I’ll look you up in Japan if I need your help.

So what does this mean? Well, everything and nothing. Because I’m moving to work instead of study, my academic needs are much lighter this time around. I don’t really need to be hauling a suitcase full of books with me. But because I’m moving, I need to bring extra or different items with me this time. In my mind, the two sort of cancel each other out.

There’s sort of a third difference as well (give me a break. I can’t count). This time, I’m a little better prepared and know more about what is available to me and what isn’t. I’m going to touch on this later, but it’s a good point to keep in mind moving forwards.

What to pack? Step One.

I don’t think I will ever forget what my school’s Exchange Coordinator said during my pre-departure to study abroad. Standing in front of a room full of university students, all bound for different countries and different experiences, she said one thing that applied to all of us; one thing that we all needed to remember.

You are all going to countries  that sell shampoo.

Those few words resonate with the frequency of the galaxy, and are so important to remember at every stage of packing. Never in my life have I heard some good advice that keeps coming back to me, whether I am leaving the country or moving down the block.

This phrase and the meaning behind it is going to come up again and again, and it has already impacted how I look a pre-packing.

Step Two: Clothing

So the first thing to consider packing is probably clothes. As a teacher, I’m going to need my suit, ties, formal shirts, and dress pants. Check. I also need my man shoes (check) and other similar formal wear.

I don’t like going commando, so boxers are a must (check), as are socks. This is basically where packing takes it’s first nose dive off the side of a mountain. Without trying, I have amassed a large collection of socks. Most are for casual daily wear, but some are for formal situations, while others have a more silly time and place. But I don’t have a lot of formal socks, because that has never really been a thing. So I’m going to have to pick though my daily wear socks and cut them with my formal and other socks. I guess check?

So I;ve got my formal wear. Now what. Well, I’m going to need some casual wear for the weekends and for when I need to gaijin smash. I’m going to be wearing my favourite plaid shorts, so those don’t need packing. Jeans are right out. Ahh. The first cut. See, I’m going to have several pairs of pants with me, and bringing a few pairs of jeans is pointless. It’s also very hot and humid in Japan (compared to Prairie Canada), so wearing heavy thick jeans isn’t something I’m excited about. Lastly, I can buy jeans in Japan. There’s that phrase again. If I don’t want to dress like a grown up, I can always go somewhere and buy some jeans.

Now for the rest of the casual wear; shirts. I love wearing t-shirts, but I really am not going to need that many. Maybe 5 or 6. I dunno. I have a LOT of shirts, so so that’s going to take some time. But again, I can buy clothes in Japan, so if I only bring a few t-shirts with me, it’s not a big deal.

Shoes are super easy. I’ve already decided on my man shoes. I have a pair of runners (check), and if I can find my sandals, I’ll bring those two. I don’t actually own winter boots, but that’s something that would just take up space anyways, so that’s a Japan buy.

I think that leaves things like winter wear, sweaters, and jackets. Just like shoes, I live a simple life. I have my leather jacket, which is quite warm and I wore all winter (check). I’ll bring some gloves and a toque, and maybe a scarf if I can dig one up (check all around). And that’s it. If I need anything more, I will buy it when I get to Japan. Winter is months away and I have no intention of taking up valuable real estate with tons of winter wear I’m not convinced I need.

Here’s the catch though. I’m overweight and I know it (clap your hands *clap clap*). I also have short legs and wide shoulders. I know from past experience that some clothing just won’t fit. Japanese boxers are the worst (at least the ones I bought. Pants probably won’t fit me well either, since I’m not an androgynous 100 pound Japanese cross dresser. But I’m short like a Japanese man, so that’s a plus. And most Japanese people have smaller feet like me, so shoe shopping was a dream. And socks… don’t get me started on socks. I have a pair of socks from Uniqlo from 2009 that have lasted longer than socks I bought last year.

But at the end of the day here, the recurring theme is that I can pack light and buy anything else I need after I get there.

Step Three: Books

I sort of touched on this already, but I plan to bring far fewer books with me this time. Since digital media has become more common, I can buy novels and the like online, so they don’t have to take up space in my bag. I can go pretty textbook light as well, though I do want to bring some English grammar books and other learning aids (check). And I scanned a lot of my TESOL material, so no 5 inches of textbooks there. So hopefully, I’m gonna be pretty book light.

Step Four: Gaming

NERD!

Here’s where I drive off a cliff again. I’m a tabletop gamer. Just like last time, I expect to bring a certain number of gaming books and board games with me. But I need to be SO careful here, since I have single board games that can fill a suitcase and take up half my weight limit. So here’s how I’m thinking about this.

First, my living conditions are different. I’m not that close to any large expat communities like I was when I lived outside of Osaka. And there aren’t a lot of them even around me. My town has me and my predecessor (who told me he’s received a position with the town). I think there are some JETs around me, but that is literally around me in a circle. The likelihood that I can find gaming groups is much, MUCH smaller than when I was in Osaka. So bring a lot of games isn’t as necessary or valuable.

Second, specific to roleplaying games, I own many in digital form. Since I will most likely be playing online, having physical books isn’t as important. Sure, I’m going to try and bring a few of the smaller ones in case I do get a local game going, but I can pack pretty light.

Third, I am aware that many board games are available in Japan, either in Japanese or as an English import with a Japanese crib sheet. In the case of the latter, it’s often the same game I can buy in Canada. For the former, I can find English crib sheets or even the full rules online, either from the publisher or on BoardGameGeek.

So I can leave some games here, even if I really enjoy them (like Forumla D) since I can buy the after I land, and I can leave others that I love but are unlikely to play at this time. Also, I can buy most (but not all) gaming books I’m watching online, which I am increasingly doing anyways. So that’s kind of a check.

Step Five: Other Hobbies

I do other stuff too. I swear. *cries* Anyways, I would like to again bring my rock climbing harness, since there are a number of gyms in nearby Asahikawa (check). I’m also going to be bringing some bookbinding supplies (I tried to get into that but lacked the time and room where I live now), mostly since the tools are pretty small. And if I have a printer at home and find any craft stores to get the rest of the supplies, I’m good (so check). I don’t think I’ll bring any origami books or the like with me. Although it was surprisingly hard to find non-kids books, I can just cross that bridge when I get there.

Same goes with a lot of other hobby and interest stuff. No point in packing around my several hundred disc DVD and blu-ray collection since I can stream movies, watch TV, and hit up some rental stores. I will try to bring my Arduino and electronics kit, provided I can get it small enough and through airport security (I still have to make that phone call).

Step Six: Computers

See that “s” on the end. Yep. Nerd. This is a tough and stupid choice, but one that needs to be made. So let’s start with my laptop. That’s a check, or rather my main laptop is a check. I’m not bringing my other two (yes, I have three laptops. Get over it). My desktop is also staying home.

Dramatization. May not have happened.

That leaves my mini-PC and my file server. Yeah. I have a lot of computers. I purpose built a file server (to handle redundant storage and to prevent data loss) to be as small as I can make it, yet be a full PC so I can better maintain and control it. It’s still really big and very heavy, but that’s the hand I was dealt. And my mini-PC is coming with me, which I may convert into a media centre-settop box kind of deal.

Lastly is my tablet, which will be coming as well, though I may be replacing shortly. So that’s lots of big, heavy, stupid checks. Note that this is pretty excessive and due to my specific needs and neurosis. I wouldn’t actually recommend anyone bring a desktop PC or as many computers as I am bringing. Computers can be bought and built in Japan. I’m only doing this because of careful planning over the duration of about two years.

Step Seven: Personal Affects

This one is both easy and hard. Since I can buy shampoo in Japan, a lot of toiletries are going to be left. I’m going to get a cheap toothbrush, a travel bottle of mouthwash, and I have some little bottles for shampoo and body wash for a few days. I’ll have a towel, but that’s mostly for suitcase padding to keep other things in place, and so I can have a shower my first morning.

I’m also going to try and bring a small quilt that belonged to my grandpa, since it made a really good blanket and cuddle buddy last time. But my suitcase is getting full, so I’m not sure about that. I’d also like to bring my zafu, because I am a terrible Buddhist. But I also know that I can buy religious materials after I land, despite how ridiculously hard it was last time, so this might get cut too.

Aside from that, I can’t really think of anything. Photos and valuables are staying here, aside from legal and personal documents. I’ll surely have a bunch of knickknacks and small items, but nothing major. And of course, my gifts, prizes, and teaching aids. Oh. And that silly amount of loose tea I have. Basically no weight but does take up a little space (yes, I can buy tea in Japan, but this stuff is expensive and probably won’t keep).

That might seem like a lot and it probably is, but there is going to be a pretty heavy slash and burn as I pack. Stupid crap or replacables like casual clothes, board games, and my zafu are on my endangered list, as is anything that isn’t totally vital for my job or sanity. Ironically, computers are probably quite high up. I paid good money for my server and it holds all my important documents and off device storage, so if any cuts had to be made, it probably won’t be here.

Advice?

Pack light. Seriously. I know it doesn’t look like it, but that’s basically an itemized list. We are really attached to physical things, and all this is going to do is weigh you down. So many things can be bought in Japan once we are paid that it makes at least half of what we pack completely pointless.

Perhaps the best way to pack is to take half of what you want to bring, lay it out, and then pick up half of that and put it away. And then maybe do that another time. I actually do feel, file server taking up my carry on suitcase aside, that I am going to be travelling a bit lighter than last time. I’m going to be really light on clothes, bring fewer board games with me, and may actually go bookless (save for a few texts and classroom aids). Everything else is pretty small and manageable.

Ultimately, everyone’s packing is going to be different, but this will hopefully give people and idea of what they may or may not want to bring.

As before, please check out my full blog, Scooter vs Japan, where I talk about other topics in dirty barbarian living, JET, and life.

Thank for watching.

tohoku roku

The Tohoku Roku: The Best Summer Trip in Japan You’ve Never Heard Of

Little did I know that the Summer of 2011 would go down as the single greatest week I’ve had in Japan.

I’m currently rounding out my fifth year in Japan, and have been lucky enough to travel to every prefecture twice, so I’m not really at a loss of experiences to choose from. In truth, I’ve been lucky enough to have too many great moments here to count, but when it comes to a consistent string of awesome events packed into one maki roll of time, my week-long adventure in Japan’s great North-Eastern region wins hands down.

Now, what the hell is this “Tohoku Roku” and why I am sure you’ve never heard of it? To answer the last question, you’ve never heard of it because I just named it! Apart from that cheeky reply, though, it is true that many foreigners and Japanese alike are unfamiliar with some of the festivals in the North. The big ones are harder to miss, but there is not much upfront knowledge of the festivals together as a package.  So let’s bring Japan’s best kept summer secret into the light.

What is ‘The Tohoku Roku’?

“Tohoku” (sometimes rendered as ‘Touhoku’ or ‘Tōhoku’) is the North-Eastern region of Japan. Its kanji, ‘東北’, literally means ‘East-North.’

Tohoku consists of six prefectures: Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Akita, and Yamagata. Even if you don’t know that much about Japan, you might have heard of Tohoku a la “The Great Tohoku Quake” which the sparked the ensuing tsunami and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima on March 11, 2011. “Roku” is the Japanese word for the number 6, and while ‘roku’ isn’t quite the correct way to count festivals, “Tohoku Roku” has a nice ring to it.*

Now, each prefecture in the Tohoku region has its big summer festival roughly within the same week. All of these festivals are unique and exciting. You have:

  • Waraji Matsuri in Fukushima that consists of spinning a giant sandal around in the streets and dancing;
  • Sansa Odori Matsuri in Iwate with its parades of dancing taiko drummers;
  • Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori with its giants floats and jingling jumpers;
  • Kanto Matsuri in Akita that has participants balancing sails of laterns on long bamboo sticks until they snap;
  • Hanagasa Matsuri in Yamagata where groups of dancers spin their flower hats throughout the night; and
  • Tanabata Matsuri in Miyagi that drapes hundreds of long handcrafted decorations in the shopping arcades.

“Matsuri” is simply the Japanese word for “festival.” We’ll deal with each festival in detail below. The thing to note now is that you can go to all six within a single week if you plan it correctly (actually in six days). Thus, “The Tohoku Roku” is 6 festivals in 6 prefectures in 6ish days. (Yeah, I know there is room for some sort of Satanic reference here, but somehow “Satan’s Summer Circuit” didn’t quite convey the image I was hoping for).

I initially realized this overlap in my first year in Japan. The thing I liked to do the best in my free time was plan trips, and so I would always be researching new things to do. I knew from the beginning I wanted to hit up every prefecture, and knowing this, I wanted to make sure to visit each place at the right time. I also didn’t want to waste money on what was sure to be an expensive quest, so I wanted to make sure to visit prefectures in clusters as much as I could. So after a bit of research, I came upon this epic 6-day trip. Surely, I’m not the first person to put 6 & 6 together, but it did feel like a great discovery, and it was one that definitely delivered.

The Tohoku Roku Festivals

Fukushima’s Waraji Matsuri

Photo c/o Tohoku Pillows

Where: Fukushima City

When: July 31 – August 1 (2015; Usually the Friday/Saturday closest to or in the start of August)

Tell Me More: Fukushima’s Waraji Matsuri is a festival filled with dancing and giant sandal spinning. Wait, what? ‘Waraji’ (草鞋) actually means ‘straw sandal’, and the festival is dedicated to the Ashio Shrine in Fukushima in hopes of bringing its participants strong legs. At a certain point into the festival, a special group takes the giant 12-meter sandal down from display and hoists in in the streets, spinning it ’round to the roaring cheers of onlookers. Cool? Strange? A bit of both!

The dancing itself is what I found particularly cool. Several companies and organizations enter groups and create original dances to the same song. The song is a traditional folk Japanese song with hip hop elements mixed into it, creating an awesome fusion of the old and the new (just like Japan itself). The groups move forward at a slow pace performing the dance, and then make a bigger shift forward after they’ve done a round of it, meaning that you can see all of the dances if you stay put and view the festival from the same place. It’s fun to see all of the ideas people come up with given that they’re working from the same source material.

Waraji Matsuri Official Site (Japanese) ; Some English Info

Iwate’s Sansa Odori Matsuri

Where: Morioka City

When: August 1-4 (Annually)

Tell Me More: Groups of dancers with taiko drums. Unlike most other festivals where these two elements are separate (a group drumming for a separate group of dancers), at Morioka’s Sansa Odori these groups are one in the same, and dances are designed with the drums in mind. The festival is also behind the Guinness World Record for “The Largest Taiko Drum Ensemble“.

The story goes that a demon was terrorizing a village in Morioka and was subdued by a local hero. Instead of killing the demon, the hero made the demon promise that it would never terrorize the village again. As proof of its promise, the demon was made to sign a contract, of sorts, by making its mark on a few rocks with its hand, hence the prefecture’s name, “Iwa-Te” (Rock + Hand). Cool, eh? You can actually visit these legendary rocks at Mitsuishi Shrine.  After the apparent truce, the villagers were so elated that they broke out into a dance, and Sansa Odori was born.

Official Site (English)

Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri

nebuta photo

Photo c/o chrisliang82

Where: Aomori City

When: August 2-7 (Annually)

Tell Me More: Gigantic lit up festivals rolling down the streets, taiko drums beating into the night, and hordes of dancers jumping up and down yelling “Rassera, Rassera, RASSE-RASSE-RASSERA!” I found Nebuta to be the most exciting The Tohoku Roku festivals, and definitely within the top three of Japan. Not only are the floats spectacular, but you can actually join any group and participate the same day you arrive! I rented the Nebuta garb for around 3,000 yen and got dressed by an old Japanese lady in the basement of a department store (not sketchy at all despite what it might sound like). Ohhh, and they attach bells to you so when you jump you also jingle!

And while you’re in Aomori city, why not try its amazing miso-curry-milk-butter ramen (#4 on the list)? You won’t regret it!

Official Site (Japanese) ; Official Site (English) – Currently showing the 2014 info, though.

 Akita’s Kanto Matsuri

Photo c/o GoldenJipangu

Where: Akita City

When: August 3-6 (Annually)

Tell Me More: “Rokusho, Rokusho. Rokusho, Rokusho” are the chants you’ll hear playing through speakers in the streets of Akita City as participants balance sails of lanterns atop long bamboo poles on their palms, shoulders, asses and heads. Individuals take turns striking that perfect balance, and then the next balancer takes over, adding another bamboo pole and extending the laterns higher and higher into the air until they snap! Because bamboo is super pliable, seasoned Kanto paricipants can get ridiculous angles before it all comes tumbling down.

Official Site (English)

Yamagata’s Hanagasa Matsuri

Photo c/o GoldenJipangu

Where: Yamagata City

When: August 5-7 (Annually)

Tell Me More: Groups of dancers stream down the streets of Yamagata City spinning their finely-decorated flower hats and dancing. They are followed by groups of taiko drummers and flute players. You can see everything from traditional geisha-done-up girls to modern LED-flashing mobs parading within the 10,000 dancer show display!

JNTO Site (English)

Miyagi’s Tanabata Matsuri

Photo c/o Nikm

Where: Sendai City

When: August 6-8 (Annually)

Tell Me More: The Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai is a display of hundreds of streamers made by business and local groups, all differently designed and decorated. These softly spinning streamer-contraptions are displayed throughout the shopping arcade for people to pass through and take pictures of. A committee evaluates them all and crowns ‘the best streamer thingy’ annually. Unlike the other Tohoku Roku festivals, Tanabata Matsuri is more passive and just requires you to take a stroll through the town. But be warned, it is one of the busiest times of year in Sendai and it will definitely by packed!

Official Site (English)

Planning The Tohoku Roku

Here’s a calendar showing the overlap of The Tohoku Roku festivals (2015 version, from July 31 – August 8):

tohoku summer festival dates

What is this…a calender for ants? You should be able to see this image better if you click it.

And here’s a map showing the dates on the geographical locations:

tohoku summer festivals map

paint ftw

As you can see, you have to plan extremely carefully to hit them all in one go! Of course, there are multiples ways to go about this. Unless you’re already located in the Tohoku region yourself, I’d recommend starting in Fukushima, skipping over Miyagi, and sliding up the east coast, turning around in Aomori and swinging around the west side, going back for Tanabata last. Visualized, it is this:

tohoku summer festival route

I can be hired for graphics work as well.

Again, this is not the only way to do this, and you might find different train routes easier, but this is a route I actually did and everything worked out!

In terms of how to get around, I have done The Tohoku Roku in two different ways. The first time I did everything through shinkansen (bullet train), and while it allowed me to travel comfortably, it costed a pretty yenny. What’s more is that you’ll have to be sure to book tickets in advance or might find yourself stuck in a certain prefecture. The second time I did it (last year), I did it entirely through local train via the seishun juuhachi kippu for peanuts. And despite the longer train times, it actually wasn’t that bad. Just make sure you have a book with you and/or a travel partner and you’ll be fine. If I were to do it again and didn’t have a strict schedule because of my couchsurfing hosts, I might try to hitch-hike.

Tohoku Roku Execution: Pro Tips

Now, there are a few things you should keep in mind when making your plan of attack on The Tohoku Roku:

  • Book Early: Accommodation will be increasingly difficult to find closer to the dates of the festivals. For some festivals like Nebuta, people literally book a year in advance. The same goes for couchsurfing requests. So the longer you wait to get everything planned, the harder it will be to find a place to stay! It’s not impossible to get your act together last minute, but if you can help it do yourself a favor and plan early.
  • Open Your Options: There are many other festivals going on in Tohoku at the same time as ‘the big six Tohoku Roku’ listed here. There is Neputa in Goshogawara, Aomori that has floats like Nebuta but much taller, Michinoku Geino in Kitakami, Iwate that has dancers with swords and demon masks, and many more. So if a particular date doesn’t work out for you or if another festival in the same region looks interesting, don’t be shy to hit one of the more local ones instead.
  • Check The Specific Days: I listed a date range for each of the big “Tohoku Roku” festivals above, but you should take note that each day could very well have a different kind of event within the same festival. There could be special challenges, fireworks, opening/closing ceremonies, and so on. It is best to check out the official sites for the break down of what is happening on what days.
  • Grab Your Seats: With the exception of the Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai where you’re actually walking through the festival, The Tohoku Roku festivals will largely have you sitting on the side of the street to spectate (unless, of course, you choose to participate in them yourself). Festivals like Nebuta are so big that they actually have seats and bleachers which you have to reserve and pay for in advance, but even then, there’s plenty of room to pop-a-squat for free. With free, unreserved spectating, though, comes the “let’s find a good seat” mayhem, and you can bet that you’ll be competing with thousands of other visitors for prime viewing space. The best tip I can give in this regard is to: 1) be there early, 2) talk to tourist information or get in touch with a local to get the low down about the best place to sit.
  • See ‘Em All At Once: Don’t have the time or money to do the whole Tohoku Roku circuit in August? Well, good news! Since 2011 (the year of The Great East Japan Earthquake), representative bodies in Tohoku have banded together to hold the “Tohoku Rokkon” festival in late May that showcases all 6 Tohoku Roku Festivals at once! This year’s festival was held on May 30-31 in Akita and will be held in Aomori in 2016. You can visit The Official Tohoku Rokkon Site (English) for more details.

「いってらっしゃい!」; Bon Voyage!

Undergoing The Tohoku Roku circuit is highly rewarding, and I guarantee you won’t regret. After 5 years of bouncing around nearly everywhere, it still goes down as my favourite trip. Definitely throw it on your bucket list!

I was able to capture a video that will give you an outstanding glimpse into The Tohoku Roku and ‘summer in Japan’ in general. The video captures summer moments across 13 prefectures in total, but the whole first half of the video shows you The Tohoku Roku trip exclusively. Get a glimpse of what you can get into!

If you found this article useful, you might also find the free “Travelling Japan” guide I wrote useful as well. Scroll down a bit lower, enter your name and email and you’ll get a copy, free, delivered directly to your inbox. I wrote it after thinking hard about how I planned all of my trips around Japan and wanted to give it away in hopes it would be useful to others. 

* While coming up a name for this festival circuit, I found out that “The Tohoku Roku” also refers to a group of six individuals trying to help rebuild the Tohoku region, but if dubbing this trip with the same name brings them more attention, then hey, sounds good!

Summer in Japan

Glimpses of Summer in Japan

If you’ve ever watched an anime you might feel well acquainted with summer in Japan even if you’ve never been here. Indeed, it is an unspoken rule of ‘slice of life’ anime that, if you’re on the air long enough, you must have a lackadaisical episode where the characters go to a festival, wear yukata, and see fireworks. It’s actually enshrined in Japanese law.

However, it’s one thing to be familiar with summer in Japan, and another to experience it. Of course, there are some not-so-welcomed ‘summer in Japan’ realizations like the screeches of the cicadas waking you up at 5 AM, your food going bad at 10 times the regular rate,  and being constantly drenched in an endless pool of sweat. But, to make up for it, there are also an incredible amount of great places to see and things to experience in the summer.

Last summer, I got to experience a handful of the best. I made a short video (viewable below) that gives you a glimpse of one of the best summers I’ve ever had. I was lucky to hit up thirteen prefectures in the month of August alone: Fukushima, Iwate, Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi, Kanagawa, Niigata, Shizuoka, Gifu, Toyama, Kagawa, and Tokushima. In the process, I got to view and/or participate in some of Japan’s best festivals including Nebuta, Awa Odori, and Kanto.

This video was captured purely on an iPhone 5, and has subsequently inspired me to up my video editing game. Indeed, I have already made strides to improve with my ‘Welcome to My Japan’ video, but still, I think this video serves its purpose of giving you a good taste of what summer in Japan has to offer.

In the next couple weeks, I’ll be writing about the Tohoku summer festival circuit which I have dubbed ‘The Tohoku Roku’: 6 festivals in 6 prefectures in 6 days. This is the best hidden week-long trip in Japan and some people have told me they are interested in hearing more information. You can actually get a little preview of ‘The Tohoku Roku’ in this very video as it was the first half of my trip. Check it out, and stay tuned for more!

 

I'm coming after you, watermelon...

The Japan Bucket List

Living in Japan for almost year, I have done many things I set out to do prior to arrival. However, every single day I find a new thing I want to do and have accumulated quite the “bucket list.” Considering I do not know for sure how much longer I will stick around this beautiful island nation, I figure I should start knocking off some of those little things from the list. But first, I will share with you all my bucket list! Keep in mind that this will probably continue to grow as I discover new things I want to do. My plan to is accomplish all of this in one year (assuming I do not recontract). Think it is possible? I think so!

I want to go here!

This is a list of places I want to go and why. I eventually want to visit every single prefecture and check out at least one thing in it so I have a lot of traveling to get to! But these are specific places or specific reasons for the prefectures.

  1. Osaka (explore more)
  2. Kobe (and eat the beef!)
  3. Uji, Kyoto (to see what has changed since I was last there and to revisit my host family)
  4. Mt. Fuji (to climb it. I don’t know if I can do this one this year…but maybe next year)
  5. Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
  6. Kenrokuen Garden in Ishikawa
  7. Okunoshima (Bunny Island!)
  8. Walk down Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher’s Walk) in Kyoto during cherry blossom season
行きたい!

行きたい!

  1. Tashirojima (Cat Island!)
  2. Zao Kitsune Village in Miyagi (all the foxes!)
  3. Snow Festival in Sapporo in February
  4. Stay at the fancy Spirited Away ryokan in Nagano
  5. Tsukiji Market in Tokyo
  6. Eat at the famous ramen place in Ikebukuro
  7. Tokyo Skytree (actually inside of it…)
  8. Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea
The So Cal resident in me is just begging to go here...

The So Cal resident in me is just begging to go here…

  1. Ghibli Museum!
  2. Find the tobacco shop run by the shiba inu in Tokyo
  3. Totoro forest in Saitama
  4. Mei and Satsuki’s house (Totoro) in Aichi
  5. Visit every single one of the 47 prefectures at least once

I want to do these things!

I am constantly discovering new things to do here in Japan, most of which I have never heard of but it sounds exciting. I mean who doesn’t want to whack a watermelon with a stick on the beach while blindfolded?! That is totally a thing!

  1. Go on a ramen tour!
  2. Go on an onsen tour!
  3. Bake a sweet potato in the ground with autumn leaves (yaki imo)
  4. Take up taiko drumming
  5. Fold 1000 paper cranes
Totally possible...by myself.

Totally possible…by myself.

  1. Sleep in a capsule hotel
  2. Go to a love hotel
  3. Go to a mixed onsen
  4. Try Fugu (poisonous blow fish)
  5. Learn how to took tonkatsu
  6. Learn how to make a bento boxed lunch from scratch
  7. See a sumo wrestling match
  8. See a kabuki show
kabuki photo

It’s okay if I don’t understand a thing. Photo by GanMed64

  1. See the Christmas illuminations
  2. Spend a proper New Year’s in Tokyo
  3. Whack a watermelon with a stick on the beach to signify summer is here (スイカ割り) [top image]
  4. Buy a yukata and wear it at a summer festival
  5. Find a square watermelon (if they even exist)
  6. Pass the N4
  7. Pass the N3
  8. Eat all of the festival food at least once
  9. Go to an owl cafe
  10. Nagashi somen! (bamboo water flowing noodles)
  11. Make mochi with hammer (or at least whack it)

So follow me in my adventures across Japan (and keep me accountable for this list instead of just sitting around in my underwear at home playing Borderlands, although that is fine too).