Saturday, April 24, 2010

Friday, April 23 & Saturday, April 24, 2010-

福島県 ふくしまけん Fukushima-ken

Today, Saturday, I spent an eventful and busy day touring Fukushima-ken with my host parents. Fukushima is the prefecture immediately north of Tochigi-ken. In Japan, there are not states, but instead “Prefectures.” The grand total of prefectures now runs at 47, yet back during the Meiji reform when the prefectural system was first instituted there were as many as 300. Today Fukushima-ken is the third largest prefecture in Japan according to size, yet it ranks 18th in population. That being said, Fukushima has long been recognized as an important region for such treasures as Edo castles, endless hot springs, beautiful mountains, lots of open countryside, one of the three national cherry trees of Japan, and some of the best ramen on the entire island! I’d driven through the region once with Chisaki Iijima and her family during winter break but was very happy to return today with my host parents in order to explore the area even more!

The day started early (well, early for a lazy 19-year-old guy) at 8:30 and we were crossing out of Tochigi and into Fukushima by 9:30. A quick note on Japanese roads and driving, the fact that Japan is only the size of California does not at all imply that you can travel as quickly by car here as you can back in the states.

As the crow flies I bet I only traveled 70-80 miles north today, yet the drive still took us nearly 3½ hours. The region I’m in is so full of mountains, narrow country lanes, highway tunnels that might as well be coalmines, and thick pine forests that it takes double or triple as long to go the same distance as it would back home.

Today, once again I’ll try to take you along for the ride. The power of pictures are, as always, far more effective than any clever or insightful words I can try to come up with late on a Saturday night. I’ve been in bed here for the past hour, listening to music, uploading pictures and wondering if my life could ever have taken a bigger 180© turn from where I was a year ago at this time. Last April I was up to my neck in homework, school and a job, add trying to pick a university in there, trying to prepare yourself for graduation, readying yourself for youth exchange, and the odd Japanese tutoring session and life starts to look pretty different from my care-free days right now in quiet Nakagawa-machi, Japan. I have had time to compare both life styles during my time here and I can honestly say that I enjoy parts of both. A daily schedule that is full with exciting people, places, and events is when I succeed best, but a bit of peace and quiet has its appeal to me now also. It makes me excited to be at the University of Denver next year

[cue dramatic mountain scene]

where I know I’ll be super busy (American upbringing) but where I’ll be in charge of my own schedule and actions, leaving room for a little reflection, relaxation, and the odd hobby every now and then too (Japanese revelation).

This flock of doves buffeted in the mountain wind is one of my favorite pictures from the day. I caught it quite by accident while on the very top of the Tsuraga-jo Castle. I felt just as helpless to the powers of the world at that point as they did. Even after ascending to their heavenly level I was still shadowed by the strength of the surrounding mountains, whipped in the face by a cold blast of air that seemed to open my eyes and make me realize that I'm so very, very small on this planet. Yet that being said I've been exceedingly lucky and have seen more than most in my short lifetime. I can only pray I will experience more and more each day, constantly being reminded that:
in reality...I haven't seen anything yet
The streams and forests of our drive flew by in a blur, I caught this quick snapshot as we sped by a tiny mountain stream
We started the morning with a visit to Oouchi, a famous villages of houses all preserved in the old-time style, now renown for delicious county cuisine and souvenirs.
Old thatched roofs and white washed walls make this village a popular tourist attraction, the parking lot was full of buses from the cities
We ate lunch at a soba restaurant for using a whole stock of negi, or green onion, instead of was a challenge, but a delicious one at that
Who'd like some nice grasshoppers?! Don't worry, they're seasoned with soy sauce =P
A drink of bees or hornets that you're supposed to drink!
No thanks, I'll leave that one to Fear Factor
Dogs + carp = excellent companions
Welcome to Tsuruga-jo Castle, home to some of the Tokogawa family, once the most powerful family in Japan. With a house like this, it'd be hard NOT to be popular and powerful!
A better setting could not be found
Japanese To-Do List #11 : Check
My host mom when she first reached the top
More views from the top
The crowds gathered out below for cherry blossom Hanami parties
I think I could simply title this one "Japan" and be set
We even took time to visit one of three ancient cherry trees in Japan hailed as national treasures. The sign is a little hard to read but it says that this Takizakura ("waterfall cherry tree" according to it's drooping branches) is from the Edo period or earlier and is over 1000 years old, some even estimate it as being close to 1800!
The great Takizakura tree of Fukushima
Proving once and for all that everyone and their dog loves sakura in Japan!
Look at how old and gnarly it is
My host parents and I
Too bad we're not as cute as that little girl jumping up and down on the right
I call this "Tree vs. Hair: Which has gone longer without being trimmed?"

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wednesday, April 21 & Thursday, April 22, 2010-

A day of sun and a day of rain, the elements are as varied as my calendar.
In only two days I’ve not only:
Gone to class,
Biked through the Japanese countryside,
Helped establish a school of Argentinean Pejerrey fish, and
Folded firework origami
(you know, the “typical” schedule)...
...but I’ve also
Served food to a noticeably confused banquet of senior citizens at the soba restaurant,
Toured two visiting American students around Bato High School, and
Even saved a poor cat stuck in the river.
Allie and Sam are from Horseheads, NY, the sister city to Bato. Interesting fact, in Japanese the literal name of Bato means "Horse Head"
The garden behind my host family's soba restaurant. I helped cut all the bamboo for those bean poles you see there
The river flowing behind the restaurant. The sakura petals are starting to fall, floating down the river until they get stuck in neat, pink lines along the dark moss of an oblivious rock
You can see the back of the restaurant there to your right. It's a peaceful place to spend a lazy afternoon
My homeroom teacher, Yoshida-Sensei took our class, along with Allie and Sam, out to Hanami yesterday afternoon. We ate lunch and played under the cherry blossoms. It was a great day, well over 70-80 degrees.
Today = Somewhere around 40...Cold!
Sekiguchi-Sensei and some of my classmates
Gotta love the fact that the Japanese still have plenty of dangerous playground equipment, no new "child friendly" replacements here
And please, no one mention the Defeat of Jesse James Days Gravitron after seeing this. I still get sick just thinking about it! =P

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Saturday, April 16 – Tuesday, April 20, 2010-

Sorry I appear to have been beamed to a different planet lately. I can’t say that I’m on Jupiter, just Japan. But compared to my experiences throughout the fall and winter, I could nearly say that I’m in a different Japan. I’ve had several very busy days lately getting to know my new host family and exploring my new surroundings. And what with an unexpected snowfall in mid-April, a hot sunny day at the Otawara Yatai festival, more day trips, more pottery, and more fun, I feel as if this Spring is turning out just like I hoped it would (well, maybe minus the snow). What I mean is that lately I’ve had an exhilarating sense of something new and exciting every day.

It is amazing to think that eight months ago today I was boarding a plane in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, beginning what has turned out to be one of the most rewarding, enlightening, and challenging years of my young life (which somehow doesn’t feel so young anymore!). Counting back, that is a grand total of 250 days…wooooah! Strange to think I’ve got another two and a half months to go, I’m sure they will be the fastest of them all.

I hope you will be satisfied with another slew of photographs and short explanations beneath each. The Yatai festival that I attended with Grace Lee and several other ALT English teachers was an exciting day of food, music, and tradition. The Yatai is a big, decorated festival float that is basically just a big wooden music box on wheels! With drums, bells, flutes, and voices exploding out of each cart, it is an exciting and inspiring spectacle to see one or two, let alone nine or ten like I did last Sunday. Add fantastic weather, enough food stands to feed a small army, a happy-go-lucky crowd and it culminated in an unforgettable day. Plus, I even got to meet new British, Australian, Japanese and American friends along the way. Now that’s just a great day for everyone! =)

The Otawara Yatai Matsuri Festival
Everyone's in a good mood when they get to ride on a float this spectacular, especially if you're on the roof!
Grace Lee, the ALT English teacher at my school. She's from America and recently graduated from UNC, coming to Japan in order to teach English for a couple years.
Sorry Grace, she's even cuter!
Grace and I got invited to climb inside one yatai. Ah, the perks of being a tall, blonde foreigner in a crowd of Japanese!
*Attention Paris: lime green is in this year*
The costumes are just as colorful and intricate as the floats
Hard at work
Every float is unique and each group is extremely proud of their yatai
I later saw this man being attacked by a group of 8-year-old boys...
These carts must literally weigh a ton. They're solid wood and then add a handful of musicians on the inside and a pair on the roof and it makes for a heavy load
I'm probably breaking some social boundary by taking this picture
But hey, that's just good photojournalism, right?!
Haha, at least that's what I'll tell myself
We called this one "Child Labour"
(I had to include the -u in the name because Matt and Malcolm came up with the name and they're British)
A quiet temple made for a strange escape from the festival
A picture of the crowd seen in the short video above
One of the first drum competitions. The crowd swarms in and each stall plays and plays and plays until finally a judge declares one the winner. Don't ask me how they decide, each group sounded better than the last!
"The Boss" as we termed her. This woman looks fierce enough to command the whole parade, doesn't she?
Last Saturday Miki and I went down to Mashiko, a famous town to the south of Nakagawa that is extremely famous for beautiful pottery.
Interesting fact: I was originally scheduled to live in Mashiko as the Mashiko Rotary Club exchange student. It makes me wonder what my life would have been like if I'd ended up there
Miki and I enjoyed a coffee and fried cheese cake on the way home
My host brother Yasunori and his wife Rumi when we went out to Ramen noodles yesterday. They're both the best! Super understanding, inclusive, patient, and funny. I'm lucky to have them as host siblings
Grandpa's bonsai trees get hit with a sudden mid-April snow storm. That's a shinto Torii gate in the background. It's basically where my host family goes with their prayers and wishes
The Shiozawa's soba restaurant with the cherry blossoms in bloom behind
I even got to go out to a sushi dinner with my host parents Sunday night
Tell me your mouth isn't watering at this one. Fresh Sashimi!
Turban Shell Kai
It's a big beast of a conch shell! Meaty and white on the inside, it coils round and round to the very top.
And a beautiful platter of nigiri rice ball