Kairakuen: The Plum Blossom Festival of Ibaraki

IMG_1471
きれいですね~

“Spring begins with plum blossoms in Mito,” all the pamphlets read. Just before the Sakura (cherry) blossoms start to bloom, the plum blossoms are well fully blossomed. Although Sakura blossoms are known as the symbolic flower of Japan, plum blossoms are still a sight worth seeing.

Kairakuen garden was built during the Edo period  and has been a well known spot since then for plum blossom viewing. This festival is held every year from February 20th to March 31st and is completely free. More than 3,000 trees fill the park and, the colors range from snow white to a very vibrant pink.

Some views of the park.

Getting there is about a two hour train rid from Tochigi prrefecture. There are three seperate sections for the park. The main area is where the trees and festival food is located. Here many people eat bentos (Japanese lunch boxes) on the grass and watch some traditional kimono dance performances. You can walk through the house of Nariaki Tokugawa to see an imperial emperor style home, visit the spring water park, and walk through the beautiful Tokiwa shrine.  The park is pretty big but I do recommend walking the full length just to get a good view of the entire area.

Tokiwa shrine

It’s not the most famous festival in the Kanto area but it’s been gaining a lot of notoraiity over the past couple of years. It’s free and on a beautiful day, it’s the perfect setting for a lovely park stroll.

IMG_1464
A lovely couple taking wedding pictures

Nakimushisan and Uncountable Monks: A Hidden trail of Nikko

IMG_1445
I was so tired here…

A well known area of Tochigi prefecture is Nikko (日光). Nikko, a city to the north of Tochigi prefecture, has been the center of Buddhist and Shinto mountain worshipping. Every year thousands of visitors come to this realively rural city to enjoy the reminicents of ancient Japan. Nikko, being home to three big mountains in Japan is also a popular spot for hiking.

Some views of the mountain hike

 

Nakimushisan
Trail map starting from the station

Meet Nakimushisan (鳴虫山), a small mountain in Nikko located just a ten minute walk away from the Tobu Nikko Station. I never hiked before so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the excursion. I fooled myself into thinking that it would be a light stroll. Maybe there would be some hills, and a few rough spots, nothing could’ve prepared me for this hike.

It was rough from the beginning, the path started out narrow and never widened at any point. Due to erosion and earthquakes, many of the man-made paths were torn apart. Despite how hard the trail was, this is still considered a 2-4 hour hike. After the treacherous climb the view from the top of the mountain was really nice. Up top, on a clear day you can see just about all of Nikko city and the point of Nantaisan.

Views from the top

The hike down was the hardest. The other end of the path was just rocks, so unstable in fact most of the path you had to use the ropes to get down safely. At the end of the path was the real beauty, the Kanmanga-fuchi Abyss.

IMG_3696

It’s a gorge in central Nikko that is easily accessible by bus or off the mountain trail. In the gorge is a long row of Buddhist monks that watch over travelers and the Nikko Botanical Garden. The monks lined up are called Bake-jizo which loosely means uncountable. It’s said it’s impossible to know how many monks are in the garden, each time you count them you’ll supposedly get a different number.

Very beautiful scenery

 

Even though my legs still hurt from the weekend, overall I would rate this as a positive experience. The hike was treacherous but the view at the end was well worth it.

Makabe Town: Stone Lanterns and Hina Dolls

Two weeks ago I had a cool opportunity to write for Japantravel.com. A company based in Japan, they pay foreigners to travel around Japan and write articles about their experience.  They covered my travel expenses and in return, I wrote a 500 word article about what I did and learned. I was nervous at first because, my work would be published for many people to see. Then, I became even more nervous when I realized that my tour guides couldn’t speak any English.

It was hard because, a lot of historical Japanese words are difficult to understand (somethings just don’t translate to English) and general vocabulary for stone making is a little difficult as well (I never thought I would learn the word for stone lantern or craftsmen). Nonetheless my guides were very nice to be sure I understood most of what they were saying. If you’d like to read my article you can find it here.

Reading this was actually a lot easier than you think.

Makabe Town is a small rural town located in Ibaraki prefecture. Even though it’s tiny it’s a pretty well known spot to visit in Japan. Makabe is most famous for it’s Makabe Stone (makabeishi) which is the stone used to create the lanterns and statues most commonly found at temples and shrines in Japan. I think it’s safe to say that most of the statues and lanterns at least in the kanto region originated from this small town. The beauty and aesthetic of these lanterns comes to life once the color starts fading and moss starts to grow. Makabe town takes a lot of pride in their stone sculptures. They’re incorporated in every aspect of the town.

img_3466
A small view of Makabe Town
Some Makabe stone statues. These can be found pretty much anywhere all over Japan.

This area is also well know for it’s buildings that have remained standing since the Edo period, earning Makabe the name of koedo (little edo).

Some photos of the house I visited

While I was visiting, the town had already set up their Hina dolls. Hina dolls are used to celebrate Hina matsuri, also “Girl’s Day”. It’s the day to celebrate good welfare for your daughters. People place them out for display in early February until the festival on March 3rd. It’s said once the festival is over you have to put the dolls away quickly or else your daughter won’t get married.  During this time residents set out their dolls displays and open up their homes to visitors to get a glimpse of little Edo. Many of the homes simply wanted to display their dolls creations but most residents were selling trinkets and goods reminiscent of Edo times.

 

I will admit, that I was a little put off when I received the topic for my assignment. Writing about rocks wasn’t super exciting, but this was a lot more fulfilling than I expected it to be. I know Makabe town would be a little difficult to explore without proper transportation but it’s definitely a place worth visiting. Who knows you might even learn something new.

Me, with my tour guides. They were so nice.

Learning to Love Winter: Ski Trip and Snow Monkeys

img_1363
Monkeying around

Winter is my least favorite season of all four. It gets dark early, it’s cold, chilly, and no matter how many layers I’m wearing I can’t seem to feel completely warm. I never really understood how people love the winter season so much but I think this year I found out.

 

 

 

Hakuba truly was a winter wonderland.

This winter I really came out of my shell both mentally and socially. I took my first ski trip up to Hakuba in Nagano, and it was everything and nothing like I expected it to be. Up the mountains I was expecting cold, harsh winds, with sharp chilly air, but surprisingly it wasn’t all that cold. I don’t know if it was the presence of friendly ALTs or the nice mountain hotspring baths but I barely felt a shiver go down my spine.

 

My friends and I up the mountain. Sorry for the blurry pictures.

This was my first time skiing ever and the experience was both satisfying and terrifying. Satisfying because, I tried something new and actually enjoyed it. Terrifying because I nearly broke my legs about three times (skiing is a lot harder than it looks). It probably would’ve been better if I had went on the bunny slopes first instead of doing the intermediate course but someone had pointed us in the wrong direction. I kept falling every two minutes and it took me maybe an hour to get down the hill. As much as I wanted to go again I was worn out and ended my ski adventures after one try. In hind sight I should’ve paid for the lessons but I’m better prepared for the next time I go.

My last day in Nagano was even better, mainly because I could cross something off my bucket list, visiting the Snow Monkey Park at the 地獄野猿公苑(Jigokudani Yaen Koen). It was such a perfect day, the sun was out and the view was breathtaking. It’s a shame you can only reach the area by car because getting into the mountain was 800¥.

It’s amazing to see how use to humans the monkeys are as well. You can walk right up to them and they won’t even flinch. Some people were even able to pet them ( I didn’t).

The famous snow monkeys of Japan

For about $300 I had a very memorable winter vacation. I traveled, tried something new, and made some new friends along the way.

ezgif_com-gif-maker
Truly Breathtaking
car-buddies
Shout out to the car buddies for letting me join their adventures!

Winter Vacation: Starting 2017 on a Good Note

The year 2016 will not only be known as my first winter vacation in Japan, but also my first paid winter vacation ever. It might sound a bit pretentious of me but, when I think about where I was last year this is a major improvement.This time last year I was so stressed out from working two jobs and applying for more jobs that led me nowhere. It’s sill to think about it now but I thought that part of my life would never end. Now here I am on a program that I never thought I would get into doing something that I like. I never saw myself feeling this good at 23 years old and I’m happy to say that I ended 2016 on a good note.

Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t make any big plans for the winter holidays for several reasons; 1. I wanted to save a little bit of money (bills are not fun) and 2. I really wanted to spend the holidays in Japan. Not that Japan does anything particularly special for Christmas and New Years, but when will I ever spend winter break in Japan ever again?

Finishing up work in school brought so much relief. I spent the last month teaching (fun) Christmas songs to my upper level students. They all thoroughly enjoy Jingle Bell Rock and continued to sing it well until the final day of classes. Two of my classes banded together to make me Christmas origami cards. They were super cute, sweet, and their English was impeccable. My Japanese has been steadily improving, things that didn’t make sense suddenly, are starting to make sense. Conversation in Japanese has become much easier (still pretty bad though).

I had several friends come and visit me during the month of December with long movie nights, frequent onsen visits (hotsprings), rocking the house at Karaoke night in the local bars and playing the new Final Fantasy on my new (used) PS4 and TV.

My Christmas Day Collection, peep me in the fuzzy sandals.

Christmas day I spent with two American friends from Yamanashi Prefecture in Sano. We all stayed in my cramped apartment for four days but it was still great, watching the new Yuri on Ice anime (highly recommended) and the somewhat new MARS ただ君を愛してる drama (not so recommended), and visiting the Ashikaga flower park for the Christmas Illumination (highly recommended). Unfortunately it’s hard to cook a good American Christmas dinner in Japan so I couldn’t enjoy the standard turkey with stuffing on the 25th, instead I indulged in some KFC for Christmas dinner. I think KFC for Christmas is strange to but the reason why Japanese people eat it is because KFC is the closest thing they have to cooked turkey… I don’t think so either.

A much deserved trip to Sendai City

December 30th I took a trip up to Sendai city all by myself just to get out of Sano and try something new. Which turned out to be a pretty amazing trip, I’m the first person to admit that I’m scared to travel alone especially to areas I’m not familiar with, but I’m glad I was able to conquer my fear of the unknown. I was able to navigate around the city on my own strike up good Japanese conversations and keep myself thoroughly entertained for the day. The shinkansen ticket was pretty pricey from Oyama but the journey was well worth it in the end. Highlights of my trip included the Daikannon temple, Nishi park and the Tanabata Museum.

 

Osechi and family time.

Finally I started the year off right eating Osechi with a Japanese friend Mutou-sensei and her family. Osechi is the new year cuisine that most Japanese people eat at the beginning of January. Apparently this meal used to be prepared as a way for Japanese families to survive the first couple of days of winter during the time when most stores in Japan would be closed. The food in Osechi can be set out in a cool area and eaten for many days without spoiling. Many of the items represent prosperity, good fortune, and health. The best part of the day was visiting the huge temple in Ashikaga and praying for good luck within the new year. I think my prayers were answered because my mikoji was the highest luck (daikichi omikuji) for the new year.

I’ve never felt this good about starting a new year before and I’m excited to see what the next 365 days have in store for me. Here’s to a lit 2017!!

My first home-stay Experience

IMG_2290
The first time I ever worn a Yukata

This past weekend I had the great pleasure participating in the homestay event through the JET program. The CIR organized families for the new incoming JETS of Tochigi-ken to spend one weekend with a Japanese family. Our families were picked completely at random so we had no choice in the matter but, we were able to specify what level of English proficiency we would like them to have. So the JETs that had no Japanese knowledge what so ever were able to have families that were fluent in English. Since I studied the language for four years I asked for a family with a very low level of English so I would be forced to talk mostly in Japanese with them.

I was always pretty regretful of the fact that I didn’t do home- stay while studying abroad. As much as I wanted to do it, I was really worried that I wouldn’t get along with my family, so I decided to stay in the dorms. Living in the dorms wasn’t a bad experience I still had fun and learned a lot while I was there but, I always felt like I missed out on an important opportunity. I traded in personal growth in order to keep my independence and if I could go back in time I would’ve at least given it a chance before completely writing it off.

This weekend was pretty great though, I did not expect to enjoy my host family as much as I did. We got a long very well and at the end I didn’t want to leave. They took me around Tochigi city to make traditional Japanese snacks and visited and Edo period and Doll museum. It was fun and stressful all at the same time because, there were plenty of times that we misunderstood each other. But after the two days I felt a lot more comfortable speaking in Japanese and expressing myself. My family was very patient with me, reading aloud brochures and doing their best to explain the meaning of things to me.

IMG_2277
Everyone thought those old people were real when we walked in.

 

My second day was fun as well. We went to a pottery barn  (mashikoyaki) where I was able to make three different pieces from clay. My pieces weren’t that great but the experience was pretty fun. If I didn’t need a car to reach the area I would do another pottery making class.

 

IMG_2293
Mine were the three on the left.

The last leg of my adventure ended with us visiting a sake brewery high up in the mountains of Tochigi ken. I wasn’t sure about the name but I believe it was somewhere in Oyama.

 

The first picture was an entrance to the cave and inside were different tunnels and racks that hold sake. The cave has been around for a while, and they’re responsible for producing the new years sake flavors in Tochigi every year.

 

I’m not sure if I can keep in touch with my family but I had a really great time spending the weekend with them. I’ve learned a lot about Japanese and also Tochigi-ken as well. This experience made me really regretful that I didn’t do it the first time, who knows I could’ve been fluent by now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tokyo Tour: Comiket and Harajuku Fashion

Giant Gundam
Life size Gundam Model

Visiting Tokyo feels a lot like visiting New York City; it’s scary, exciting, and feels a little unreal. After all there’s not to many places where you can visit an indoor video game theme park and then have lunch with your favorite idol at a cafe.  Tokyo as most people know is the capital of Japan, and pretty much the only city anyone outside of Japan knows about. It’s the main source of inspiration for amines, manga, and all those wacky Japan articles on the internet. Tokyo is amazing, there’s so much to do here it would take you at least twelve years to do everything without repeating any event.

Diver City Tokyo Plaza

Diver City Plaza is a shopping mall in Tokyo which is home to the worlds only life size Gundam statue.  There are about four floors throughout the whole mall and offers a wide variety of food and high end brands (Armani, Stussy, Addidas, etc.).

The food court offered a wide variety of traditional Japanese foods such as ramen, soba noodles, curry as well as some western foods. I was amazed to see an Auntie Anne’s and a Subway here, those aren’t even good restaurants back in America.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Comiket Tokyo

Tokyo Big Sight.JPGOur second stop was Tokyo Big Sight, the building in which Comiket Tokyo was held. From the the mall it was about a twenty minute walk, with an excellent view of the ocean and Tokyo harbor.  Comiket is always held in the Tokyo Big Sight building. It’s a pretty impressive building, and for the life of me I can’t understand how they managed to build it.

Ever since I first started cosplaying about eleven years ago, it has always been my dream to go to an anime convention in Japan. I always pictured it to be this amazing thing, where everyone would be in amazing costumes, para para dancing to whatever new Euro-beat trash was out. To my disappointment, conventions in Japan however are very different compared to conventions back home. In Japan it feels more like an informal business meeting rather than a giant hangout. The focus is less about making the fans happy and more about getting you to buy all the newest things. Which isn’t terrible but that just means there’s a lot of rules that we’re expected to follow such as cosplay only sections outside of the convention.

Japanese cosplayers are on some next level type of skill though. I’m not sure if it’s because there are actual shops dedicated to cosplay so they just have more resources or if it’s just that these people are naturally talented with make up and sewing but these pictures can’t even begin to capture how dedicated some of them were. Plenty of people looked like they came straight out of a cartoon. The next convention is in December so I’ll have to pull out all the stops if I want to even be noticed in my costume.

Harajuku

Harajuku district in Shibuya is known as Japan’s center of youth culture and fashion. It’s a great place to visit and it is a perfect place to shop to find just about anything to please your niche aesthetic. Although I love coming here, I am sad to physically see it’s decline. Even from two years ago, I noticed that many of the shops have disappeared and it has become much more a tourist spectacle than it was before. Many of the previous shops that have catered to Gothic Lolita fashion or Fairy Kei have closed and been replaced with international branded stores such as H&M, forever21,etc. I’m sad to see it go but I can understand why, there are plenty of reasons for it’s decline but I think the main reason is that many of the stores were just to expensive. A lot of products are handmade so it’s very easy to spend over $1000 USD for one outfit.

Despite it’s high prices and constant crowds Tokyo is a great place to go; there’s always something going on from idol dance performances to great places to sight see. There’s a small piece of me that wishes I had been placed in the capital but I know I would always be broke.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Disclamer: The Harajuku pictures above aren’t mine. The crowd made it very hard to take decent pictures, but I thought these images helped capture a little bit of the look and feel for Harajuku.

My First Paid Holiday Ever!!

IMG_2125The first time I came to Japan I was really disappointed because, my school took away all of the Japanese holidays for the foreigners. They wanted to try and make our school schedules in Japan similar back to our western schools. Some how the administration thought it would be an easier transition for us (rolls eyes). In Japan, there’s usually a federal holiday every month or so where all the schools and local business shut down. So while all the Japanese students and professors enjoyed every holiday off I still had to drag my butt to school instead of enjoying local Japanese traditions and festivals. The second time around I’m thankful that not only do I get to enjoy the Japanese holidays, I get paid to enjoy them too.

This month’s holiday was yama no hi or Mountain day. A new holiday that was created just this year in order to “give opportunities to get closer to the mountains of Japan, and appreciate their benefits,” nothing more nothing less. Since I was unaware of this holiday until the night before I didn’t plan to go to any mountains.  However I did make the best of it to visit Tochigi city.

Tochigi tour
Boat ride along the Uzuma River

Kuramacho town along the Uzuma River is known as the center of history in Tochigi city. The town is nick named Little Edo because many of it’s old historical buildings are still left in tact. Kuramacho is also home to trade and commerce because of all the little shops and cafes that can be found along the river walk  and further down.

IMG_2179
Anko ice cream from Tochigi

There were plenty of little shops and cafes along the road, we stopped at one ice cream place to try their anko (red bean paste) ice cream sandwiches (red bean paste is delicious by the way). We were trying to take the boat ride along the river but unfortunately we reached a little late and missed the last ride.

The real reason we came though was to see the paper lanterns that are lit up every night. They were gorgeous and certainly worth the trip to see.

IMG_2127
The lantern trail

 

 

 

 

Okonomiyaki, Okonomiyaki, Okonomiyaki!!!

Last week was a good week for me for two reasons; 1. one of my bosses took me out to eat Okonomiyaki for lunch and 2. my senpai hosted an okonomiyaki party in Ashikaga. Okonomiyaki was my favorite food to eat while I was living in the Kansai area, so I was so excited to have it back into my life.

IMG_2060Okonomiyaki, I would say is pretty similar to pizza. The name loosely translates to “as you like pancake” because you can get pretty much any topping you want on it (beef, pork, shrimp, cheese, wasabi, etc.)  Okonomiyaki can be found all over Japan but depending on the region, the way it is cooked can be a little bit different.

On Monday, Hazumura-sensei took me out to Donburi, an okonomiyaki restaurant here in Sano. It was pretty big, a nice Japanese style restaurant where you had to take your shoes off at the entrance. Also for the foodies of the world it’s inexpensive, my meal alone came up to less than 1,000¥ (about $10) and that was including a drink, salad, and desert. Usually if you want okonomiyaki, you have to cook the ingredients yourself, however for the lunch menu the cooks make it for you instead.

IMG_2173
We’re all trying our best to not make a mess

The okonomiyaki party was a little bit more expensive mainly because it was at night so we had to get the dinner options. It was nice though, it was a bit of a walk from the station (about 20 minutes) but the food was well worth it once we started eating. It was a family run restaurant in Ashikaga, again Japanese style so you needed to remove your shoes. There was about 10 of us in the room altogether with three cooking stoves. For the dinner options we had to cook the okonomiyaki for ourselves which was an experience.

IMG_2169
Ingredients before they were all mixed

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It’s much hard than it looks because you have to keep the ingredients from spreading to far apart from each other. Otherwise your pancake won’t be firm. Before the okonomiyaki we ate monjayaki, similar to okonomiyaki and it’s very popular in the  Kanto region of Japan. The only difference that I really noticed was that once cooked it was a little bit sticker than Okonomiyaki and resembled string cheese when lifting it off the grill. We had six rounds of okonomiyaki to cook of different flavors, (pork, vegetable, mochi, kimchi) I was so full by the end of it I wanted to explode. After this week I don’t want any more okonomiyaki for at least a month.