Summer Vacation and Stuff

Trip Start Mar 15, 2004
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Trip End Apr 16, 2005


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Flag of Japan  ,
Saturday, September 4, 2004

Hello! I hope everyone is enjoying the summer in Canada. We hear that the weather hasn't been great. Over here, that kind of complaint falls on deaf ears - sorry. I'm happy to report that the heat has finally subsided a bit during the past few days. It's amazing how people's moods have improved. Mornings and evenings are actually pleasant now. Yesterday, for the first time in months we didn't sleep with the AC blasting. We were therefore able to catch up with the annoying construction workers and rude morning conversationalists outside our window. Ahh - the good old gang hasn't changed a bit. This being a land of weather calamity, we get to enjoy a couple days of nice weather and then enter enter typhoon season. In the past week have been treated to the side effects of 2 typhoons that touched down in southern Japan. The force of the downpours and crazy wind are truly amazing.

Despite the incredibly, disgustingly, unbelievably hot and humid weather, we did have a terrific August - mainly thanks to a 2 week summer vacation (called Obon - when Japanese people return to their hometowns to acknowledge their dead relatives). Since I've heard some complaints about the length of my updates, I'll try to keep this one a bit shorter. The pictures are probably more interesting then my ramblings anyways. We spent some of our time off in Nagoya, and finally visited the Nagoya Port Aquarium. Given the national obsession with fish we were not surprised with how impressive the facilities are. They treat the animals like garbage at the zoo, but the aquarium actually provides a decent living experience for the fish, dolphins, killer whale, turtles, and especially the penguins.

A few days later we bought super cheap rail passes (valid only for the slow local trains) and headed out to see a bit of central Japan for 6 days. The trip took us to Magome (old fashioned town), Tsumago (old fashioned town), Matsumoto (cool castle), Komaga-take (mountain), Niigata (port), Sadoga-shima (island), and Tokyo (big city!). Along the way we rode the train, subway, ferry, night bus, cable car, and got rides in a car, rode power-assist granny bikes, walked, climbed, swam, and hiked. Here are some highlights.

1. Hiking 8km from Magome to Tsumago. Although it was difficult due to extremely hot weather and constant ups and downs, it was really nice to hike the trail (not many bother walking the distance). Along the way we were treated to some tiny villages, rice paddies, and we also saw some waterfalls and ... forest!

2. Staying at Japanese Ryokan (Japanese B&B). We didn't bother to pre-book any accommodations, but were able to find nice, clean, affordable accommodation the whole way through. The rules of the house were generally simple: always wear your yukata (Japanese robe) when outside your room for bathing purposes, and be sure to change your slippers according to your activity (in your room, in the hall, in the bathroom, in the shower). We stayed at one place that had a sento (public bath) and salt sauna. Listening to Kyle squealing as he tried to endure the sauna in his little see-through white yukata was hilarious. Since we are not entirely comfortable with the public bathing scene we would wait until we thought everyone was asleep before we snuck in to shower/bath.

3. Visiting Matsumoto Castle. This is one of only a few authentic castles in Japan. Most castles required reconstruction following the wars. This one is beautiful - complete with moat, various defensive appendages, and gorgeous solid wood throughout.

4. Giggling Japanese Man. In order to get to the top of Komaga-take mountain (altitude 3000 metres) we had to take a bus, cable car, and hike. On the bus ride to the cable car station an elderly man giggled like a school girl whenever the bus took a sharp turn. We thought it might have been his first ride in a moving vehicle. He was hilarious.

5. Staying at the top of the Japan Alps. After climbing to the top of the mountain following the cable car ride we decided that we wanted more time to enjoy sunset, sunrise, and the cold, refreshing mountain air. The view was amazing. So, we found a small pension/lodge and paid the expensive premium to stay on top. Accommodation here included a futon mattress, blankets, communal toilet and two set meals. (After being in Japan for 5 months I feel it's fair for me, at this point, to come out and admit that I don't like Japanese food. There, I've said it. I prefer the fake Canadian-style Japanese food to the real stuff.) When dinner was served I stared down at my tray, directly into the traumatized eyes of a little screaming, grilled fish (along with a hamburger, ham, sausage, and various other slimy looking things). I didn't eat much that night. After dinner, much to our surprise the power was cut off at 9pm sharp. They literally pulled the switch on us as we were sitting in the cafeteria playing cards, so we had to feel our way back to our rooms. We were the only two foreigners in the place, and word spread fast. By morning random people were telling us that they visited Yellowknife as we walked by.

6. Sunrise on Komaga-take. It was really, really pretty. A blanket of clouds covered everything, and mountains poked out like islands in the sea. Super relaxing (and cold).

7. Getting laughed at trying to decipher the food (again). This happened pretty much every time there were witnesses to us attempting to decide what food was edible and what was just too damn weird. One man watched me and laughed the whole way through breakfast as I smelled each of the 200 little bowls of stuff that were set out in front of me. I'm sorry, bin this country I have to smell everything before I eat it, and if I don't like it, I'm not eating it. Kyle is much more polite than me, and will suffer through the cuisine to avoid offending anyone. I just kept saying 'I'm so full!' and then snuck off to eat some buns. During one dinner, while Kyle was busy playing with his fish's eyeballs (pulling them out and watching the hole ooze) a group of men beside me slurped and snorted and sweated profusely. Suffice it to say I ate buns for dinner that night.

8. Watching Sunset on a Ferry. The same day we watched sunrise in the mountains we saw sunset on a ferry on our way to the island Sadoga-shima.

9. Touring Around Sadoga-shima. While on the island we rented power-assist granny bikes (mine pink, Kyle's blue of course) and cruised around town. We visited sunflower fields, the famous Sado gold mine (3rd largest in the world when it was still operational), and a fishing village. On the first day the temperature was so hot that we took an unplanned dip in the Japan Sea. Lovely water.

10. Tokyo - I guess. Tokyo wasn't exactly a highlight for me, but apparently we didn't visit the good spots, and we were there on Obon day which is Tokyo's least busy day of the year. Due to a transportation glitch we ended up riding the night bus to Tokyo, and arrived at 4:30am (temperature: 26 degrees). We did see some really cool buildings and experienced the messed up subway system. Since I was going delirious with fatigue I was glad when the time came to catch the train home. Then, a lady decided to sleep on me for a good hour on the train. Grrr.

The only other exciting thing we did in August was take part in an apple picking trip in Nagano. When we signed up we thought the plan was to drive to Nagano and spend the day picking apples and baking apple pies. Once we were on the bus we realized that apple picking wasn't the main event. We basically spent the entire day on the bus, making stops at gift stores along the way. For hours on end the bus tour guide babbled on and on in Japanese. We found out that she was introducing absolutely everything as we were driving past, including elementary schools and fire stations for small insignificant towns. I can't believe people are interested in that kind of thing. When she wasn't talking she broke out the bus karaoke system. One guy jumped out of his seat and ran up and down the aisles giving people high 5s as he sang a JPop song. Of course, we convinced Kyle to give a performance - that alone was worth the ticket price. We did eventually make our way to an apple orchard. We each got to pick one apple, then were ushered into a large cafeteria where we removed the core, stuffed sugar in the hole, and wrapped the apple in precut dough squares. hour later the "apple pies" were ready. We headed back onto the bus and stopped at 20 more gift shops selling exactly the same thing before we made our way home. It was an experience to remember.

We are now back in the swing of things at work. We have been busy working both of our jobs and are looking forward to a 5 day vacation we have coming up in a few weeks!

That's all for now! Take care of yourselves! We think about you all the time and can't wait to see you some time soon.

Joanne and Kyle
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