Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The end of the Stacy Era (maybe)

As the Edo and Meiji eras forever changed the landscape of Japan, so has the Stacy era changed the landscape of our modest school. After much pomp and ceremony at Saturday's farewell party, Stacy's last moments with us today ended with a cozy pizza dinner with the staff.

Message to Stacy: I meant every word I wrote in that card to you, especially the heart of gold part... you are a phenomenal person and I feel priviledged to have known you, even if it was for a mere 3+ months. I wish you all the best in your travels, may see you in Aichi soon enough! May the wind always be at your back and all that jazz....

As a much wiser man than I once wrote:
"Don't be dismayed at goodbyes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again and meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends."

From left to right: Yukiyo, Kanako, myself, Stacy, Satomi, Yoshi, Scotto, Madoka.

The foreign teaching contingent of AEON Utsunomiya

Japanese pizza is... different.... but mostly quite good.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What a weekend....

The fact that I'm writing about this weekend on Tuesday night should be sign enough of just how hoppin' everything was. Just as a recap here were the scheduled activities from Saturday to Monday:
  1. AEON party for Stacy and Noriyuki on Saturday after work.
  2. AEON after party at a Karaoke place after the first party.
  3. Working on Sunday from 1PM to 5PM.
  4. Dinner with Riyo and her friend Akiko from 7PM to 9PM.
  5. Another farewell party at the Suda residence that night.
  6. Meeting up with Marissa in Shinjuku on Monday morning.
  7. Meeting up with Richard in Ginza on Monday evening.
Pretty busy times, and I'm glad to say that with the exception of number 6 and the fact that I now have a cold, everything went according to plan... and we were even able to squeeze in a third party after the first two on Saturday... but let me tackle this as it happened.

Headed out to Modern with Riyo and her friend Akiko, this was to be our farewell to Riyo since she is moving back to her hometown in Shimane prefecture, like a gazillion miles away from here. While Japan is a relatively small country, it's pretty damn long!!! So we had a lovely dinner, I was quite pleased to meet her friend who speaks English quite well and also knows some Italian... she's a pretty cool girl, I hope to see her again soon. It was sad to have to say goodbye to my only non-AEON friend, but I'm glad for her to be heading back to her family and friends down in Southern Japan... and I've bene meaning to visit Hiroshima, so I might make a segway to see Riyo while I'm in the deep South. Here's a pic of the three of us at Modern, Riyo in the middle is the one who's leaving.

After dinner, I bid my adieus, gave her a big hug and walked on out to Isao and Tomoko's place... later than I had expected unfortunately... dinner went a little over. Had a nice time there celebrating Stacy and I had a first glimpse of a Japanese custom I had yet to witness... or at least had not noticed. After cutting up dessert, I saw Tomoko make certain to give the biggest piece to Stacy (the guest of honour) then the second biggest to me (as a foreigner and teacher in their home the second in line) and then the third biggest went to Sayaka (teacher) and fourth to Motoki (guest) before finally handing off the final two pieces to herself and her husband. I had yet to notice this custom, which on top to the Sudas being amazingly excellent hosts, brought them up even a notch higher! Party broke up around midnight and we were driven home by Mrs. Suda herself... how amazing is that?

So on Monday morning, I slept in until about 10 before dragging my tired ass out of bed and checking the train schedules in to Tokyo. Sent Marissa an email telling her I'd be in front of the AEON head office around 1:30 and made my way down to the station... sidenote here: I miss my bike, I need to either fix my tire or buy a new bike this weekend... where I hopped on a local train for the trip to the big T. As we were nearing Shinjuku station, my phone bleeped at me and there was Richard who'd checked into his hotel and received my message. We made plans for me to meet up with him at the Imperial Tokyo Hotel in Ginza at 6PM and I headed on out of the train at Shinjuku.

And that is where the first hiccup of the day occured. Now, in my defense, Shinjuku is THE busiest train station in the world, and probably the largest geographically as well. Also considering this was my first time riding the trains without assistance from a veteran of the Metro system, I was looking for something to happen. For the first time, my "follow the crowd" tactic backfired and the crowds immediately took me outside of the station, as opposed to a transfer point to the Maranouchi line for Nishi-Shinjuku. After looking around a bit and trying to orient myself I gave up trying to walk to AEON headquarters since I'd only done the trip once, in the dark, with people guiding me... and plunged back into the bowels of the station. My fiddling and trekking around the station did eventually bring me to the right subway line, but I was by then about 10 minutes over my meeting time with Marissa. I got there about 15 minutes later than I was supposed to and after walking around the building several times, assumed she had given up on me and left. I spent then spent some time trudging around trying to find her hotel, asking a few people if they knew where it was and eventually gave up. I assumed that she would call or email my cell phone and we could meet up. It ends up our not meeting up was totally my fault. I had sent the email with my info and meeting location to her hotmail address... assuming that since we communicated mostly through MSN, it was the easiest way to do so. Unfortunately, she doesn't use hotmail at all and so never got the message! Doh! So I got to bum around Shinjuku for a couple of hours before heading to Ginza.

Right near AEON headquarters is a large park which houses dozens of homeless people, in sharp contrast to the skyscrapers which surround the park. The fact that there are homeless people litterally in the shaddow of the seat of Power in Tokyo is sad, but a phenonmenon seen all over the world. Ottawa's got plenty of homeless folks downtown, though life there bust be a little harsher than here due to the Winters. Would have made for some interesting photos but I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of these people and so I didn't. Did get some nice shots in the park though.

This is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, essentially Tokyo City Hall... massive complex that it is, as seen through the trees of the park.

In the park was a nice little Shrine, here's the water purification spout with some building in the background. I find myself taking alot of shots of these things... maybe it should become my trademark thing?

TMG building as seen from the shrine.

The shinto gate at the entrance to the shrine, with a highrise in the background. And that black spot is not dirt which suddenly appeared on your screen, it's a raven flying by...

This is the behemoth of a building. Quite lovely in fact, or at least as far as skyscrapers go. The construction of it is quite fascinating and explained in detail inside. They are pretty certain that this building can withstand a violent quake... wouldn't want to be on the 45th floor if ever one hits though, must be quite the wild ride!

A neat set of three highrises towering over the park in Shinjuku... you'll see it from a whole different perspective in just one moment...

Did I mention you can go to the top of the TMG building and scope things out from 45 floors up? Here's that "High Rise" seen from 45 floors up. I went up both the North and South towers of the building to scope things out. Unfortunately it was just a little too hazy to see Fuji-san but you could make out the foothills in the distance... phenomenally clear day for Tokyo nonetheless.

Some more buildings.

The urban sprawl that is Tokyo. From this angle you could actually make out Tokyo Tower about dead center in this picture, though because of my lowering the resolution of the pic for posting to the web you can't quite make it out. A heck of a view nonetheless.

Fuji is somewhere out in this direction... had I been there a day or two earlier, right after the typhoon, I could have seen it.

Had lunch 45 stories up, which I think is officially a Michel-Record for the highest altitude digestion of consumables, setting aside airline travel, during which "consumable" may be too kind a word to describe the meals you get. After lunch and hoofing around Shinjuku a bit more, I headed down to Nishi-Shinjuku station and rode my good friend the Marounouchi Line to Ginza. After tromping around a bit more and stopping in to a Doutor coffee shop for a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, I found my way to the Imperial Tokyo. Damn that was a nice hotel... I felt largely under dressed just standing in the lobby, especially after an afternoon of sweating like a pig in the Tokyo heat. So I waited for a bit since I was early after all and did some people-watching.

At 6PM on the dot, there it was, the small piece of home which had been promised me. Seeing a familiar face (familiar to me meaning someone I had met before coming to Japan) was absolutely fantastic. He'd been in Japan for about three weeks with his family and had been mostly in the southern regions, visiting Hiroshima, Shikoku and Kyoto among many other places. When his wife and kids came down we headed out into the streets of Ginza in search of food while immedaitely breaking out into French, a language all five of us are fluent in... it was great! We ended up settling on a little Italian place which wasn't all that great, but the conversation more than made up for it. If there's one thing I learned from follow-up training, it's never to come to Tokyo without at least a clean shirt, some deodorant and a toothbrush, and before settling down for dinner I quickly took advantage of my bag of tricks to freshen up a bit.

Richard and his family have long been in love with Japan. He and his wife were here about 20 years ago I think and had a blast. He'd read Dogs and Demons (the book I've been working for a few months now) and had some interesting insights. Both Richard and his wife Chantal are quite interesting to talk to, working in International Law and all. Nice to hear about their adventures and to share mine face to face with fellow Ottawans as well. After dinner we booted around Ginza a bit, marvelling at the beauty of Tokyo at night... during the day, you can definately feel that the boom is over... at night the lights come on and people flood the streets, it's a different feeling altogether. Richard's daughter took this photo of us next to the Godzilla statue in Ginza.

As I've mentionned a few times in the last few days... when I wrote in my goodbye email to the staff at Ogilvy Renault that if "anyone was around Tokyo" to "drop me a line" and we'd "do tea, or something" I didn't really think it would actually happen! It was great to share war stories and practice my French, which even though it is my native language, I do feel it slipping a bit from lack of use. After about an hour though, I'm well oiled and right back to where I was back home. After dinner and a quick walk, we dropped off Chantal and the kids to the fabulous Imperial Tokyo and sat down for a quick drink in the lounge before I had to catch my Shinkansen home. I opted for the bullet train, ignoring the cost, since it was getting pretty late. The nice comfortable ride certainly topped off another most excellent day rather nicely.

So while I am in the grips of a cold, I think it won't hang around too too long... tomorrow is Stacy's last day at the school... not looking forward to saying goodbye to yet another friend... I thought my goodbyes were all done when I left Ottawa! While on the subject of goodbyes, I think I've found my perfect quote for when I do end up saying goodbye to the students and staff here at AEON: Leo Buscaglia wrote in his book, 'The Way of the Bull,'
"Though every hello is the beginning of a goodbye, do not lose heart; for every goodbye may also be the beginning of another hello."
And on that note, I'm off to bed, goodbye!

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

The best goodbyes end with smiles and laughs

Last night, about 50 students and the entire staff of AEON Utsunomiya gathered at Gaslight on the 3rd floor of the Washington Hotel to pay tribute to our two departing teachers, Stacy-sensei and Master Noriyuki. There was much public speaking, including a segment where I was given the mike to attempt to coerce students to ask questions about good old Nori, who has been here for quite some time. While I wasn’t very successful in getting questions,I did manage to make a entire room full of Japanese people laugh a couple of times… so kudos to my Public Speaking abilities! While I did not understand Stacy’s goodbye speech (it was mostly in Japanese, but sounded very Heartful) the students did seem to be touched by it and were all very grateful of her attempt at using their language. Scott gave a great poem which he wrote for Stacy, who has helped so much in getting the both of us settled and comfortable in life here. Noriyuki’s address was mostly in Japanese, but his English segment touched me and proved something I’ve known about him since I met him… he is a teacher at heart, it’s who he is. He thanked the students for being his teachers, proving that good teachers realize that they can learn as much from their students then they can teach them, if not more.

Following a lovely dinner and drinking segment at Gaslight where I was constantly assaulted by students with more beer or wine (at one point they were trying to make me put down my glass and pick up a pitcher, and they finally edged me on to finish about a third of a bottle of wine… without a glass… at the end of the night) we moved on to Karaoke for the second party, as is the tradition for these types of events. After much singing, the official part of the evening ended at around 2AM and the third party began with the hardy few of us left… We karaoke’ed until about 3 something and then stumbled home.

Oh and did I mention I had to work today? Oh yeah... that's right. It went ok, I was fine as usual... glad to know my recupperative powers are still at their peak. Tonight is dinner with Riyo (My friend from the library who is leaving town soon) and her friend (who speaks Italian and English and whom I hope is before heading to the Suda household for another farewell to Stacy party. Tomorrow I'll be heading out to Tokyo to meet up with Marissa (our would be teacher in Utsunomiya) and Richard (Ogilvy Renault lawyer who's in town) for a day of touring... more pictures coming.

Here are some pics from last night...

This is my favourite I think... Yoshi, Noriyuki and myself. We'll miss the kid... and I can say that, I am (slightly) older than he is.

It was at this point that I regretted going home and changing out of my suit, Stacy arrived in a lovely dress... and some other students as well. The first time I felt underdressed in Japan... lol

A shot of part of the partying students, standing for one of the activities.

Me hiding in a plant.

Tomomi on the left does the weather for Tochigi TV.

Funny how the man with the money is always laughing.

The Mega karaoke room for the second party... in fact this exact location used to be where AEON was... we had this whole floor in the building.

Rocking out at party number 3 with Hiro, Mayu's boyfriend with whom I went to Oyama last month... and of course Yoshi still in his business atire....

The hardy 3rd party partiers... looking back, Hiro should have been in the picture and the karaoke lady should have been the one taking the picture instead of being in it... lol

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Slight modification to the program

Announcement at next Saturday's party:
"Ladies and gentleman, before the festivities begin, we'd like to make one small change to the Program. Please go to the title page, and remove "And Welcome" from the original title of "Farewell and Welcome Party." Thank you for your cooperation, and bring out the beer!"

Unfortunately, instead of a new teacher coming in to our school, we will be getting an Emergency Teacher for the next few months. It seems that our recruit was cut from training camp early on in the game, to our great disapointment. I guess all in all, considering there is usually someone who does not survive the Omiya boot camp, there is always a 10-15% chance of not actually getting the teacher you're expecting... I guess it was just our turn. Too bad.

On to other news!

Typhoons number 11 and 12 are rumbling our way... 11 has already started to dump rain on us, though the winds aren't so bad yet. This one is about twice the size of the Typhoon which hit us last month, and this one is moving really slowly... around 15kph, which means it will sit over us for a long time and dump massive ammounts of rain. I only hope the weather clears up before Monday, I would like to go visit Richard in Tokyo while he's there, and maybe say hey to Marissa and see how's she's holding up after the training fiasco.


Earlier this week, I had my first real twinge of longing for home, and it's all Sherry's fault. You see, Sherry is my ex-girlfriend and current-friend, (No the two are not mutually exclusive as some may think) and she has a blog much like mine, but about daily life or whatever pops into her head, just like most blogs out there. Well the other day, she posted an entry about how she can feel Fall coming back home and how certain smells remind her of really vivid memories from the past. Of course, this immediately got my mind thinking.

The first smell which comes to mind is the musty smell you get in the woods in Autumn, as the fallen leaves are starting to decompose. It's difficult to explain if you've never been out there, especially after a little rain... it's such a clean and fresh smell... it's amazing. Then I started remembering... Waking up at 4AM, picking up my friend John and heading out to Calabogie for a day of hiking and hunting... stopping at the Antrim truck stop for an amazing breakfast and a dozen coffees while it's still dark outside... getting to Eagle's Nest in Calabogie just as the sun is about to appear over the horizon... getting the shotguns out and loaded, the boots on, and just before heading out, in the last few moments when you're just double-checking everything and not really making much sound, having that feeling that "This is it", that perfect moment of clarity where things actually make sense... the stillness of the woods, the wind blowing through the trees and then the forest coming to life with the sun... chipmunks, foxes, birds and the odd beaver running through their daily routines... and just being there to experience it. Fantastic!

The next smell that came to mind was the smell of my clothes when I come back from camping. Somehow, every item of clothing becomes permeated with the hickory smoky smell of the campfires from the time spent in the bush... which brought on the following memories.... Waking up in the morning to find dew (or frost) accumulated on the rain fly of my hammock... slipping out of the hammock and making my way down to the lake... the perfect stillness of the lake like a mirror... and then the surface of the water being broken by a pair of loons fishing in the early morning... their gorgeous, sorrowful cries... another moment of absolute clarity.... sitting around a campfire talking all night on a little island on Lake Travers... good friends, good conversation, solving the world's problems one at a time over a couple of beers.... perking up instantly and scrambling to the lakeside as we hear the howling of wolves on some distant shore... howling back and getting a response from a chorus of 8-12 wolves... our howls echoing through the night... the fading of their howls as they move away from us, affraid of our horrible wolfish pronunciation no doubt :-)

Fall has got to be my favourite season of all. Heading out into Algonquin Park for 5 days last September was absolutely fantastic and something I will never forget. Hearing that Pat and Sean are planning another trip out in the next few weeks makes me want to join them. It's just an amazing feeling to be out there at this time of year because there is no one out there but you, the trees, the water and the wildlife. Fall will be fantastic here, being so close to the mountains and such. I think I just really missed being out in the woods over the summer and experiencing those moments of clarity, the thought of the wonderful skiing coming up is the only thing keeping me sane! (At least from a nature-lover's perspective...)

Speaking of moments of clarity where time seems to stand still, thinking back, I've experienced two such moments since coming to Japan.... at least two that I remember. The first was standing at the base of the steps to Saimyo-ji temple in Mashiko and gazing up the stairs which have been used for 1200 years to access the temple at the top. The second was almost 2 weeks ago, standing on the front of the ferry taking us from Shiogama to Matsushima, the wind whipping at my face, the beauty surrounding us, and then as we left the shelter of the islands being able to look out at the open sea... amazing.


I think this may be the start of the famous cyclical homesickness thing they warn us about. I think I've got my head screwed on right and that it will be a pretty tame event... but in the last few days I have seriously been re-thinking some things which I thought were almost a done deal in my head. The major example is my contract renewal, which is coming up in a few months. I was seriously considering extending for another 6 months, but am now reconsidering... maybe 3 months would be better... keep my options open. I would like to start looking into joining the Canadian Foreign Service, which would allow me to travel and yet have me back home on some kind of regular rotation... at government expense of course. I think that would be a totally kick-ass job! I guess after breathing only Japan for the last year and a half (since I started planning this little excursion) It's time for me to start looking at where the rest of my life is heading. I seriously think that alot of it will depend on what happens in the next few months here. Now that I am well settled in and am enjoying life here, who knows who I will meet or what will happen. I am now actively seeking companionship, which will make a huge difference in my life here. I think that is the only major hole left in my life here.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Quotable quote

"There is in all of us an ache to care for the world."
From Hole in the Sky, by William Kittridge

Just started reading this book last night, Scott-o lent it to me. It's about an American inheriter of probably the largest farming operation ever. His father had ammassed massive wealth and land over the years and had built a huge farming empire. This book is written by this farming mogul's son, and details many of the Demons in his past. The building of such an empire is not always a peaceful and simple proposition and with time he realized some of the dreadful acts his father had done (including the draining of wetlands, and even a possible murder) to gain more and more land and wealth.

Should be an interesting read, I just love that quote though, I think I'll open up a new section on the old blog here to add some of the quotes that have reached me somehowt... not right now because I have to get ready for work... but tonight.

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Another good night...

Had a great night last night after work. Went to Cafe Praktika (check out their site here) with Akiko, a former AEON student who just came back from France. She speaks pretty good French, has a French accent and everything, it was nice to talk French for a few hours with someone for the first time since coming to Japan. Unfortunately, she's hooked up with a guy from France, and she's going back there for 9 months starting in September. I hope the staff at Cafe Praktika don't take me for a player or something, that's 2 weekends with 2 different girls... lol But both have ended up having significant others... dagnabit. Maybe I should start asking if they're attached up front?

Just had another "minor" quake here a couple of minutes ago... I think they'll all be minor for me from now on after the rumbler we got last week. Only lasted about a minute, gentle side to side shaking. This quake was located a good hundred and some kilometres from here off the western coast of Japan, magnitude 5.1 it's amazing how far these things travel. By the way, for anyone interested in checking out any quakes they feel while in thise wonderful Japan of ours, or anywhere else in the world for that matter... just go to the USGS web site at: and click on your region. You'll get a map showing recent activity as well as a list of the quakes a little further down the page. People keep asking me how often we have quakes in Canada and are quite surprised when I tell them I've never felt any. We have them on rare occasions, but they're usually small enough that no one really notices, or people think it was just a truck driving by. I guess Canada's pretty solid geologically.

So after dinner, we joined the crowd at Modern for the first of Stacy's going away parties. We only have another week and a bit before she heads off to Aichi for her intensive Japanese course and the farewell festivities are kicking into high gear! She's been such a big part of the school for so long that people will really miss her.

It's a funny phenomenon this foreign work thing. A couple of nights ago, Scott and I went for a beer at a little Filippino place near here and met a Brit who's been here for 14 years! He says he had only planned to be her for a year or two when he first got here. Then when people asked him how much longer he would say another year, another 2 years, another year. Soon enough he turned around and he'd been here 10 years, and there was no longer any life waiting for him in England. His friends and family had gotten used to him being gone, and finding a job would be ridiculously difficult, so here he is! Same thing happened with Stacy to a point. She stayed longer than 98.345% of AEON teachers who only take their one year contract and move back home. So next Saturday is the BIG bash where we greet Marissa and say our goobybes to Stacy, should be a good night.

I am quite amused at some of the emails I am still receiving from some folks at my previous employer bemoaning my departure. It's nice to hear that I'm missed. It was a great place to work, but I just wasn't ready to settle in to a career at that point, at least not the career I had. I would have taken my boss's job and stayed in Canada... but I guess he's rather fond of being employed... so he didn't offer it to me... lol!

Today I'm doing: NOTHING. My apartment is clean, I did that this week in case I was going to have company... my fridge and liquor shelf are stocked and I have a couple of DVDs to watch. That's about it.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Fall is in the air

As predicted by Sir Scotto, there has been a noticeable change in the weather since the end of the Obon Holiday. I've noticed nights and days are noticeably cooler since I've come back from Sendai, and I'm glad we only had maybe 1 or 2 weeks of oppressive heat. Today is going up to 32 so my theory might get shot down but that's ok... lol

So yes that Earthquake certainly was something the other day. I think I was mistaken when I said 30-60 seconds. I guess I was trying to compensate for the "It felt like 10 minutes but was really just 3 seconds" factor when feeling a quake. In fact it did last a full couple of minutes, and started to feel a little weird after a minute or so. It was odd because you couldn't tell whether it was done or not, it just kept rolling, at different intensities with some major horizontal movement. For my first time in Japan, I felt like maybe I should start to maybe begin thinking of heading for a doorway\table. I can't imagine what it was like in Sendai for Leah, a bare 50km from the epicentre. She says things fell off her shelves and such but other than that she's ok. I'm just hopping this series of noticeably large quakes (3-4 ranging from 5-7 on the Richter scale) that have hit in the last month or so are not a sign of some something... maybe the one in Sendai was the "big-one"... regardless, both the buildings I spent most of my time in are fairly modern so I'll be ok.

Jack Johnson! Who you ask? JACK JOHNSON I say... lol A student suggested I check him out, and I did. While I already knew one of his songs (Sitting, Waiting, Wishing) I didn't know his name. I've since listened to many of his songs and he's pretty damn cool!

Went out to Modern last night with Scott, it was really nice to be back. We tried their salad, and for 180Y we were expecting a single sized portiong but what they brought us was a huge plate of greens! It was great, I'd have enough of that myself for a meal! And for just 180 Yen! Amazing. As I've said before, the greatest thing about the place is the atmosphere, which is amplified because we are foreigners. They greet customers with a heartfelt shout from the kitchen, and take very good care of us. Unfortunately, it seems to be pretty busy these days and we've been turned back twice (to many apologies from the bar staff) due to lack of room. It's nice to know they're doing brisk business!

Nothing really major going on, I met a former student of ours the other night who speaks pretty amazing French, complete with the Toulouse accent. She just got back from a couple of months in France. It was nice talking with her in French, I haven't been getting much practice since coming to Japan and I can feel my thought process slowing down.

So everyone is recovering from Obon I think, getting back into the groove of things. It's nice to get back into the routine after a busy week of travelling. Satomi and Kanako had a great time in San Francisco, they brought back nice pictures... including one of a great bowl of clam chowder I could practically smell! Scott had a great time in Hokkaido, really enjoyed the greenery and isolation... he also says Sapporro is a pretty nice city. Stacy's camping trip into Fukushima was cancelled due to the rain... they still went out there and had a great time BBQing and stuff, just didn't want to get all their gear wet. The thing with Japan is we have no room to dry out something as large as a tent in our little apartments...

So that's about that for now, I've got to get prepped for work, eat something and head on in.

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Felt that one...

First time I feel a quake from my apartment... I guess I'm usually sleeping or something... and this was a big one... magnitude 7 (or 6.8 depending on where you read) where it hit. It hit about 50 kilometers from Sendai, and a small tsunami was created, nothing too too big.

Not sure how big it was here but it knocked some DVDs off my table... lasted for quite a few ( felt like 30-60?) seconds here... I had time to type out an email to Scott before it finished...

Just got in touch with Leah in Sendai, glad she's ok... there are reports of multiple injuries now coming in.

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Planes, trains and automobiles... minus the planes and automobiles

That's about the best way to sum up the past 3 amazing days. To those of you who don't recognize the title of the movie referenced in the above title... too bad.

As Matsuo Basho so eloquently stated after visiting Matsushima, some beauty cannot be put into words. I know that's an odd opening line for a post which will likely take up a couple of pages, but all I'm saying is that my words (or pictures for that matter) cannot do the scenery we saw over the last few days justice. The Tohoku region of Japan is absolutely amazing, there's no other way of putting it. And thanks to Japan's wonderful train system, most of it is quite easily accessible, though travelling can take some time. Just a quick tally in my head here tells me I took about 20 different trains, including the Shinkansen 4 times totalling over 10 hours of time on the rails... This means 2 things: 1. I am quite comfortable with the Japanese rail system now and 2. I don't want to see another train for a LONG LONG TIME!

Anywho, so here's the story of the final 2 days of my trip to Sendai, starting Saturday with a day-trip to Hiraizumi.

After having an adventurous day on Friday, we slept in a bit on Saturday but when we finally got rolling we decided to head to Hiraizumi where Takashi (one of Scott's students with whom we go out every Wednesday) suggested we visit one of only 2 gold covered temples in Japan, the other being in Kyoto. Unfortunately, a footwear malfunction from the previous day riddled my poor footsies with blisters, but I just grinned and beared it... now's time for healing... lol Not sure what the heck happened, I was wearing my hiking shoes which have taken me on multiple multi-km trips in Japan and back in Canada... maybe my socks bunched up or something and I didn't notice... anywho...

So we hopped on a local train heading to Ichinoseki from Sendai and actually got a seat, for which we were quite pleased. However, as we approached a station about halfway into the trip, we noticed a large amount of people suddenly making their way to the front of the train... we were in one of the last cars and found this very odd. Within a few minutes, we were just about alone back there, with the exception of two Europeans looking just as confused as us and a couple of dozing Japanese folks... Having travelled so much the previous day, I thought nothing of heading to the back of the train and asking what the heck was going on. Using as little language as possible, we found out that the train was about to split into two and only the first 4 cars were going on to Ichinoseki. DAMN! Had we taken seats in the front of the train we could have kept them... but now we had to make our way into a crowded, standing room only train for the next 45 minutes of riding! The crowd eventually thinned out and we did end up getting seats again.

After arriving at Ichinoseki and making our way to the proper platform we were quite impressed when our train arrived. Seems this must have been an old long-haul train, the seats were comfy and the car we entered was empty.... BUT! There's always a but, isn't there... Shortly after departure for our 17 minute trip to Hiraizumi, a conductor came by asking for tickets and soon made it clear why this car was empty... it was the reserved seating car... for which you pay extra. Of the 3 cars on this train, only the middle one was non-reserved seating... and there were no seats available, while both "reserved" seating cars were devoid of even one measly passenger. So we stood for 15 minutes... no big deal... just odd we were asked to move on from the reserved car since we were going such a short distance and there was nobody there...

So we finally arrived at our final destination, Hiraizumi and after stopping by the tourist info section and getting an English map\guidebook thing we headed out into the town. We quickly found a little restaurant where Leah's reading ability came into play and we were able to order some quite tasty Chicken Soba before making our way out on foot towards the temple, a few kilometers away.

This is the hill on which the temple is located, just off to the side from the highway.

Having read a little about this place in my lonely planet guide, I knew to expect a meandering path into the hill through a pine forest, and was not disapointed. This is a shot of the gate to what ammounted to be more of a Temple complex than a single temple... they were all over the place.

We quickly diverted off the main pathway, attracted by the presence of a Shinto gate in the woods. Here's the small footpath we followed for a while... the forest was great!

We soon found ourselves in front of a nice little buddhist temple\Shinto shrine area, all by itself in the woods off the beaten path.

For those of you who have forgotten\don't know... these are Tori gates, and serve as a passageway between the normal and spiritual world.

Another nice shot of the isolated site.

Seeing as the area is mountainous, we did get to see some hills once in a while through the mist. There were also multiple viewing spots on the trail leading up to the top of the hill.

When we finally made our way to the top, we were amazed at what we found. While I didn't take many pictures (I sometimes feel odd taking pictures at certain religious sites so I don't, and it was forbidden in certain areas) it was an absolutely beautiful area and totally worth the travel. We came upon multiple temples, in the search for the one "Gold" temple, one of which had this cool Dragon's head water spout providing worshipers with water for the purification ritual.

Slightly further from these temples, we finally found some of the major attractions of this religious site. The first of which is a large treasure house where multiple artefacts from the 12th century are kept. These artefacts included statues, furniture and artwork decorated with gold and/or mother of pearl. It was an amazing glimpse into the dedication of the people from this period in time. Absolutely gorgeous designs and writings in actual gold on paper and silk were my favourite.

After touring the treasure house, we made our way on to the next building in the Chusonji temple complex which housed Konjikido, the famed Golden Hall, of which only 2 exist in Japan. It certainly wears its name well, with every inch (including the floor and the pillars holding it up) except for the roof covered in a layer of gold. Within the temple are numerous statues and artwork which serve to protect\give hommage to the 4 generations of Lords entombed within. Shortly after our arrival, we were surprised to hear an English version of the explanation begin, no doubt played especially for us by the staff guarding the door... THANKS! This visit to Konjikido pretty much made the trip for me so far... the amount of work put into the building of this thing is mind-blowing, there's no other way of putting it.

After spending some time in awe at the golden marvel before us, we decided to move on down and came upon this neat path heading up to a temple... the roots of the surrounding trees seem to act as stairs... very cool, and one of my favourite pictures so far in Japan.

So after making our way down from the temple, and stopping in to a gift shop to buy some post cards, we slowly made our way back to the train station while checking out places of interest on the way. Interestingly enough, I found out that for the 3rd time since my arrival in Japan, I was following in Haiku Poet Matsuo Basho's footsteps. In the 1600s, he toured Japan, writing poems as he went. My first encounter with him was in Nasu at the Killing stone... my second was on Friday at Mount Bandai where he wrote after visiting a shrine:
Tranquil hush -
a cicada's voice
permeates the cliff

Hiraizumi has an interesting history as the hiding place of the rival-brother of the first Shogun of Japan who finally ended up murdering his family and committing suicide when his brother attacked the city with plans to kill them all. The area never recovered from the death of such an important leader and when Basho visited, grass fields grew where mansions once stood. Due to some language confusion in the tourist brochures and signs, I had to look it up to make sense of the story but he was inspired to write this haiku:
Summer grasses -
all that's left
of warrior's dreams

So we hopped back on our train after a minor episode where Leah decided to stand outside in the rain instead of inside the small station which was absolutely covered in spiders... Not that they frighten me or anything, but I did keep her company... mainly since I had an umbrella of course... ;-) Upon arriving in Sendai, I had a little tiff with the JR staff when I tried to adjust my fare. They were trying to charge me more than double what I should pay for the trip to Hiraizumi! I'm 100% certain the confusion was my fault, I must have pressed the wrong button the the ticket machine when I bought the ticket but I was not paying 1700Y when I should be paying 650... Leah went through fine of course, and I was eventually able to clear it up that I hadn't come from some far away station I'd never heard of... I'm glad I have some Japanese ability to complement the JR staff's slim English abilities. It took 4 different people, but things eventually got sorted out, I paid my 650Y and we headed out on our merry way. I decided not to try the famous Gyu (cow) tongue since there was a lineup out the door of the restaurant and instead we headed to a pretty good Mexican place before heading home for some rest. So that was Saturday, another fantastic day.

Now, for today, the final and I think most amazing day of my trip into Tohoku! The plan for today was hopping on the train for a quick ride out to Shiogama and then taking a ferry in to Matsushima Bay, which has one of the most beautiful and scenic views of Japan. We again slept in, but that's no biggie because we didn't have far to travel... In fact, we pretty much timed things perfectly weather-wise since the sky was clearing up as we were heading out. The one wish I had for this trip was for relatively clear weather when visiting Matsushima... and I got my wish!!!

So we headed in yet again to the Sendai train station where I left my bag in a locker and hopped a train to Shiogama. Unfortunately for us, we hadn't realized that there were two different train lines heading in to Shiogama and that we took the one which had us the furthest from the marina and the boats bound for Matsushima. As we stepped out of the station with no ocean in sight... we started to wonder... lol We walked into a kind of information\library building and the staff there was quite helpful and with the help of a map and their 3 words of English, helped us on our way to the bay, a few kilometers away. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and on occasion, we could feel the cold breeze coming off the water.

We finally made our way down to the Marina, where this couple was doing some fishing.

With 5 minutes to spare, we bought our tickets, something to drink and hopped on the ferry for the 50 minute trip to Matsushima Bay. Thanks to the sun, we got to see some lovely scenery one the way there and I can see why Matsuo Basho was so inspired here and had trouble finding the right words to describe the scenery. Matsushima translates as "pine islands" which are in fact the bay's most striking feature. The wave erosion on some of the islands is quite fantastic and makes for some interesting scenery.

As the ferry cut it's way around the bay, we got a slight glimpse of the open sea. I was quite content to stand on the front of the boat and feel the wind whipping at me as we headed towards Matsushima. I spent a few quiet moment pondering life as one does when faced with such timeless things as the ocean and once more came to the same conclusion I usually do... life is good.

The ferry took us around many of the small islands and the sun did cooperate for a large part of the journey.

The open sea. Having lived inland all my life, with only a total of 2 trips to Florida, I am still in awe every time I see the Ocean. Today was the first time I get a real good look at the Pacific. 2 Oceans down, 2 to go... lol

At around the halfway mark of the trip, the clouds started to come in which made for some interesting sky\water effects.

Here's one of the most photographed islands in Matsuhima... very odd erosion pattern...

Cool island with caves carved out by the waves.

More funky sky\water things.

Decided to try out the sepia setting on my camera... I think I'll fool with it some more from now on.

As we were docking, we came alongside our ferry's counterpart, the dragon.

Our ferry was the Phoenix, on the right.

As we disembarked from the ferry, the sky openned up and I had my final dry moment of the day. For the first time on this trip, I didn't bring an umbrella around, so I resolved to get wet along with Leah... who actually enjoys the rain. After a quick lunch, we headed out to check out a few of the islands which are connected by bridges.

This is a stone marker on the first Island we stopped on.

This is the long red bridge which connects the main island to the mainland. The island was covered in lovely hiking trails which had frequent observation decks and a lovely park.

Said park...

By this time it was getting dark, but again, the sky was doing funky things.

So after a lull in the rain, it started coming down pretty hard again as we tried to navigate our way to the train station. Thankfully, due to Leah's and my fabulous sense of direction (and the help of a gas station attendant and a bus driver) we found our way to tiny Matsushima station and were ready to head home. While I did spot some spiders at this station as well, there was nowhere to avoid them so I didn't mention them to Leah... lest she waits on the tracks themselves for the train... While we were waiting we also met an elderly couple from Cypress who were in Japan visiting their son who lives in Tokyo. We gave them a little help with the trains. It felt quite good to use our experience and help others out.

The train ride back to Sendai was pretty quick and I was just about on time to catch the 6:58 Yamabiko Shinkansen back to Utsunomiya. Bought my ticket, grabbed my bag, said my goodbyes to Leah and made my way onto the platform. Unfortunately for me, the train was packed and no one who got on in Sendai could get a seat. I found myself seated rather comfortably on the floor of a small cubicle used to wash your hands near the washrooms. Broke out Dogs and Demons and did some reading. I was pleasantly surprised when the announcer said we would be making only 2 stops before Utsunomiya, my train in to Sendai made 6 and took 2 hours. This time around I was in Utsunomiya by 8:00, where I hopped a taxi (due in part to the driving rain and in part to the constant pain from my feet... damn blisters...) best 660Y I ever spent! And I was quite proud of myself, able to give directions to the taxi driver in Japanese to my place... Kencho-dori, eto, hanawada, eto, Daily Yamazaki? Hai! Woohoo!

So all in all, I had a fantastic time in Sendai, thanks of course to Leah, my host and travel companion. Did we make some mistakes while travelling? Of course... did they cost us time and energy? Of course.... But you know what they say, it's the journey, not the destination that counts in the end. And we had a hell of a journey!

So I have another 2 days off before work starts up again on Wednesday... I think tomorrow will be spent relaxing a bit, though I may try to plan something with someone if anyone's in town right now... I've been keeping in touch with Scott who is somewhere in the wilds of Hokkaido (Northern most section of Japan) and having a blast I'm sure. It was very nice to get away from the Kanto crowds\concrete\traffic\etc. for a few days. Tsukuba Steve asked Leah tonight if she thought I would be interested in touring Tokyo with him a bit, and I'm glad she said no... again, I don't want to see any trains for some time now... lol Any time anyone is up to coming on down to Utsunomiya though, please do feel free. We're on the JR Tohoku line, very easy to find. Come on down and I'll take you to Nikko... maybe we can spot some mountain monkeys!

Great big thanks to Leah, who put up with me for three days, even though she just quit smoking too! It's been a week plus one or two days... keep it up Leah!

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

Disappearing mountains

Greetings from Sendai-shi, Miyagi-ken, Japan!

I am a day late on my posts, since I am trying to be a good guest and not spend time on Leah's machine... but I fear if I don't post things at least within one day, the events of the following 24 hours will replace my memories... so here goes for yesterday...

So I departed Utsunomiya yesterday morning on the 7:07 Shinkansen heading to Sendai, set to arrive at around 8:48 where Leah would meet me and we would head out for the day.

Here's a shot of the sleak Shinkansen bound for Tokyo arriving at Utsunomiya station.

So after embarking and securing a seat on the top floor of the Yamabiko Max double-decker, I did a little reading, looked at the passing scenery and generally dozed as I flew out to Sendai. Everything North of Utsunomiya is what I would actually call "countryside"... except of course for the major centres such as Fukushima and Koriyama. One thing which did strike me is once more the total lack of planning in Japanese urban design. Fukushima is a great example. As the train was pulling in near the station, you could see a large industrial complex, chemical plant style, just off to the side of the tracks. Very close to said chemical complex is residential housing, shopping, office towers and the station... very odd to me. If anything were to occur at the plant, the results would be devastating... but anywho, back to the trip.

So I arrived in Sendai, met up with dear Leah and after securing my bag in a locker for the day, we headed out with plans to see Bandai Mountain in Fukushima prefecture. In order to get there, we had to take a local train to Fukushima. Upon arrival and grabbing a bite to eat, we decided to shorten our trip somewhat and take the Shinkansen to Koriyama. In Koriyama, we headed out for a quick tour around the station and ended up going to check out this building near the station which seemed to have some sort of observation deck on the top where you can see that huge ball.

We quickly found out that that was a good decision as we happened to stumble upon a World Record holding site. The planetarium located at the top of this building is the highest planetarium in the World! What luck!

Here is the view of the station from the planetarium.

So from Koriyama we then had a long train ride into the countryside\mountains of the West which was quite beautiful, though covered in mist. Due to the humidity and rain, we didn't get a real good look at Bandai mountain upon arriving at Inawashiro... but it's there I swear!!! If you looked just to the left of the naked statue and sign, and the wind was just right... you could see a triangular darkness rising from the mist ... lol

So we decided not to head to the Lake of 5 colours as originally planned since the view would be severely diminished by the mist... and decided to explore Inawashiro instead. Needless to say, heading out into such a small town was quite amusing\entertaining\adventurous for us and we certainly turned heads wherever we went. Our first destination ended up being the Post Office where Leah decided to buy stamps. After I corrected her question in Japanese (she asked for Magazines...) and pulling out the phrasebook for some extra help... we did manage to get some kitte!

We then kept walking towards the mountain and I got my first close look at actual rice... really cool how it grows. Here's a field near the road, and Bandai mountain appearing in the background.

We then stumbled upon a nice park and temple that we checked out before finding our way back to the station and heading back home having at least SEEN a section of Bandai mountain.

All in all a wonderful day, even though the scenery\mountains were playing hide and seek with us behind clouds and mist. We certainly had a nice adventure figuring out the various trains all by ourselves and had a well deserved beer at a local Irish pub here in Sendai. As with any trip a course, the company helps immensly and Leah has been an amazing travel companion.

I find Sendai to be rather similar to Utsunomiya, though about twice the size. The feel is the same, except in the bar district which is hopping at all hours of the night, a feature which Utsunomiya is sorely lacking...

So today we headed to see a temple in Hiraizumi... will write about it probably tomorrow morning before heading out to Matsushima and the beautiful Pacific ocean.

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