Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Colors in the Wind

The winter cold, returned, went on and on,
The skies a stubborn mass of evil gray.
More flowers bloomed, and yet the sun was gone,
While misty rains and chill wind ruled the day.

And yet within Ye Olde Academy
The atmosphere was nowhere so morose,
The moistened halls filled with activity,
For the Sports Festival was drawing close.

The vigor double strong yet bittersweet;
The memory of last year lingered strong,
For tragedy torpedoed last year's fete,
When youthful play went terribly wrong.

But as we worked, the rain would not let up.
The playing field became a mass of goo.
The fear was real we'd have to give it up,
As the 29th nearer drew.

Yet on that day, like a miracle,
We woke to blue skies and a warming sun.
A crowd amassed to see the spectacle,
A sigh of relief blew from everyone.

I don't know why, but the start was delayed.
A brassy fanfare rent the air at last,
But "Stars and Stripes Forever" wasn't played,
Because the entrance march went strangely fast.

Each of the six teams took its proper place
Upon the field as the excitement grew,
Each team led by a flag, its colored face
Of yellow, green, purple, red, white, or blue.

The pomp began in earnest, loud and grand,
Tradition kept as solid as a rock,
And then the Principal assumed the stand
And took the mike to give his usual talk.

We figured he would talk about the weather
Or, as he often does, philosophy.
Instead, in tones as light as a feather,
He spoke about last year's tragedy.

He said the name of the boy who died
And asked us to remember where and how
It happened, young dreams on the field denied,
And young life taken, just a memory now.

He asked us for a minute of silence
In honor of the boy, and we complied.
Then suddenly the wind blew with great violence,
And all six team flags stretched out flat and wide.

I thought it strange, yet no one paid attention;
Maybe they had too much inside their heads.
The Principal made only passing mention
And talked about the nice weather instead.

The opening was finished as was prudent,
With that old radio warm-up routine,
And then the fired-up throng of eager students
Scattered in a cacophony of screams.

I watched the first event, a simple race,
And then I went inside to write this post.
I do not need the sunburn on my face,
And this year's event has one too many ghosts.

NOTE: I apologize for the lack of pictures, but I was specifically ordered by the Principal not to post photos of school functions on this blog. It's a shame, too, because the team mascots are great this year. Team A (yellow) made a fantastic Big Bird costume with crepe paper feathers. Team B's (green) Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc. and Team C's (purple) Daisy Duck were pretty amazing, too. Team F (blue, my team) had a Dumbo mascot that would've been good if it had been an average year but seemed a bit pale and sad in comparison with most of the others. The weakest entry was that of Team E (white), which I guess was a character from a Japanese manga or anime, but I couldn't figure it out, and it didn't meet the competition. On the other hand, the one that impressed me the most was the entry from Team D (red), which was a red steam locomotive character from Thomas the Tank Engine complete with working wheels and drive shafts. The dance costumes and backboards look pretty good compared with most years, too. I guess the kids are making up for last year's cancellation by making a double effort. I'll probably watch the afternoon competitions, but now it's time for lunch.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Does Gray Count as a Spring Color?

Since Ye Olde Academy is a private school, we're able to do some things that the public schools can't. For example, though the latter were ordered to eliminate their Saturday morning classes and restrict themselves to a Western-style, five-day week, we had the option of not following suit (which was a good thing since our biggest rival schools stuck with their 5.5-day schedules). On the other hand, that fact that we're private means we're run more like a corporation than a school, i.e. our administrators can't simply ignore federal labor laws like the public school system does on a regular basis. That means that, while we have a 5.5-day class schedule, the faculty can only be made to work a regular 5-day week. That means that those of us that teach Saturday classes, like me, have a substitute half-day off sometime else in the week.

Today happened to be my half-day furlough, and I'd taken the afternoon off, giving me my first fully-open day in what seemed like ages. I still had some things to do, though. For example, I had a large load of laundry which I wasn't able to hang up outside on account of the really crappy weather. I therefore took it to our local coin laundry, popped it in a drier, put in enough coins for about fifty minutes of drying, and then realized that I had almost a full hour to kill. That reminded me that I hadn't yet taken any Spring pictures to post on my blog, so I grabbed my camera and headed out in search of some color.

The prospects looked about as bleak as the sky. Cherry blossoms don't last very long in the best of times, and we'd just been through an unholy succession of storms. It was also late enough that those few blossoms that remained were pretty well overwhelmed by leafy growth. I headed toward a couple of areas I knew of, but hadn't visited before, that were known for their cherry blossoms, and I came out disappointed. Undeterred, I spent some time circling around on roads I'd never taken before. There were things to see here and there, but most of the time I'd catch sight of something far too late to stop, and a lot of the time there were no good places to park even if I could find somewhere to turn around, anyway. (Many if not most Japanese would simply park their car in the middle of the lane and turn their hazard lights on, but that always irks me, so I don't do it myself.) There was also the no small issue that the most colorful sights tended to be in people's private gardens, and I could only wonder what their reaction would be to a strange gaijin parking by their house and taking pictures. Trying to be ambitious only got me onto one-lane back roads whose "pavement" was narrower than my BLUE RAV4. Eventually I decided just to look around and see what I could see on the more substantial roads.

2010 spring drive 1
This is what it looks like in the middle of April, 2010, in the rural headlands of Namegata City. Freshly-plowed rice paddies look pretty eerie under an ominous, gray sky. Here and there you can see splashes of color among the trees, so all is not gloomy.

2010 spring drive 3
Here and there a few artificially-planted trees and flowers try to make a bold statement, but on these deserted country roads (or, in this case, a local sports ground quiet and empty in the off season) it's like a shot in the dark.

2010 spring drive 4
The landscape of inner Namegata, with meadows of rice paddies surrounded by clusters of hills, can seem pretty surreal at times.

2010 spring drive 5
Every once in a while I could see a big cherry tree in bloom in the distance, but trying to get close to them seemed more trouble than it was worth. Then, all of a sudden, I stumbled on these reasonably-sized veterans at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. The name on the sign was "Kashima Jinja", which makes me wonder if it's one of the satellite shrines to the main "Kashima Jingu" back in Kashima City. I debated going into that spooky-looking tunnel of trees (the end of which can be seen in the photo) to have a look at the shrine, but I decided to press on instead.

2010 spring drive 6
Then there were little surprises. This little guy was a much more vivid shade of magenta than my camera was able to reproduce (and it was a lot darker on that hinoki-lined street than it looks in the pic), but it really seemed to jump out of the gloom.

2010 spring drive 7
Then, as I found myself circling around on yet another unknown, narrow road, I suddenly came through a surprising corridor of cherry trees that just appeared out of nowhere. I pulled off onto a little side street so I could get out and take this shot back the way I came. But then there was the sight that lay ahead of me:

2010 spring drive 8
It wasn't listed on Navi-chan's map at all, and there were no advance warnings of any kind, but the signs said that this was the ruins of "Kannonji". It was apparently a temple to Kannon, the Buddhist Bodhisattva (saint/angel) of Mercy (and the namesake of Canon, inc.), that was established around 500 years ago but had long since been destroyed. I didn't read the signs all that carefully (since I'd left my car running at the entrance), so I'm not sure how old this gate is, but the roof is definitely modern, as are the metal hoops to prevent people from driving in. Behind it can be seen a bell tower that no longer houses a bell. (Sadly, a closer pic I took of it didn't turn out.)

2010 spring drive 9
Just past the gate, off to the left, was this spooky, old stone foundation, long since overgrown with trees. (It was a lot darker in there than the pic makes it seem.) There were a lot of ancient dedication stones all over the place, all of them written in archaic language that I couldn't hope to read.

2010 spring drive 10
Then, just a little further in, there was this very new building. The signs said that it housed surviving relics from the old temple including its principal image of Kannon. It was locked, however, so I made my way back out.

2010 spring drive 11
This was the view coming back out through the gate and looking toward the temple's modest graveyard. There was still a lot of Spring color scattered about.

After that I climbed back into the BLUE RAV4, content that the drive had been worth it, and headed to the nearest main road so I could find my way back to the coin laundry. By the time I got there, someone else had already taken my stuff out of the drier so they could use it. I folded everything up, loaded it in the car, went home, and had a nice, WARM cup of tea. (It had only been around 6 degrees Centigrade [around 40 F] outside and damp!)

Tomorrow I'm back to work again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Squeak Away

I figured it was only a matter of time before Hana, our little, orange-and-white female tabby, went into heat for the first time. She was still a kitten when she showed up in our yard, weak and half emaciated, in early Summer last year. She was just another member of the gang of orphans that has long existed on our property, but she was cute and friendly enough to win her way into our household. By September she had overcome all opposition and had become our second resident fuzz.

Hana fuzz 2
Hana last September.

It was hard to gauge just how old she was. When Autumn gave way to Winter she was still a tiny thing with the daintiest, little squeak of a meow. (In fact, most of the time you couldn't even call it a "meow". It was usually a soft, cottony "ha".) I knew I had to get The Operation done sooner or later, but it wasn't easy to make the judgment call even if my unforgiving schedule allowed any time for it. Then, as Winter gave way to Spring, it finally happened.

The dreaded trilling began in late March followed soon afterward by passionate yowling and increasingly desperate attempts to get outside, not to mention constant vigils in the front bay window between her thwarted efforts. I did my best to rally my family to the cause of keeping her indoors; her litter box and food dishes were all moved into the living room (to my wife's chagrin), and a decree was made that all doors were to be kept firmly shut. Unfortunately, with one absent-minded senior member (who is strangely incapable of shutting doors behind him) and one extremely careless junior member on board, it was perhaps inevitable that the determined, little squeaker finally gained her freedom. By the time I got home from work one evening, she was long gone, and she didn't reappear until the afternoon of the next day.

After a couple more days the heat eased off, and she went back to being her usual, spunky self. Her appetite also returned with a zest. I figured I'd better get The Operation done immediately, but still my hands were tied by the usual madness of the changing school year. After a week, I noticed that little Hana had a little bulge in her gut, but since her behavior and everything else seemed perfectly normal, I tried not to worry about it too much. Finally, a little over two weeks after the end of her heat, I found myself with a free day and immediately made an appointment to get her "fixed". I explained the situation to the vets over the phone, and they said that, aside from the gut bulge, it didn't sound like she was showing the usual signs pregnancy. The next morning, I put little Hana in our old kitty carrier (She struggled far less than any other cat we've taken in that thing), took her to the vet, dropped her off, and came back home feeling both relieved and strangely nervous.

That evening I got a phone call from the vet telling me that she had indeed been pregnant, but they had gone ahead with the surgery. That made me feel strangely guilty (not to mention troubled by the fact that they'd told me there'd be a surcharge if she had bread in the oven), but I tried to take comfort in the fact that, since it was her first time, there would probably only be a couple of babies.

Cats are induced ovulators, i.e. they ovulate only when they mate. Due to a mechanism which I won't describe here (though there's a good reason why female cats tend to end a mating session with a shriek of agony), a single act of mating normally causes a single egg to be released. That means that, ideally at least, one baby is produced each time the deed is done. However, the chance of impregnation is much less during the first heat, meaning only a small litter if not a single baby.

When I arrived at the vet to pick Hana up, they first brought me into the examination room. I'd gone ahead and asked them to give her a full check-up, and they wanted to show me the X-rays. They showed clearly that she'd had FOUR BABIES. And I have to say that it's amazing how quickly cats develop in the womb; two and a half weeks was about the equivalent of five months in the case of a human baby. The little things already had fully-developed skeletons and were quite recognizable as cats. It was certainly shocking enough to see. But then they told me to wait because they wanted to show me what they'd taken out...(diminished 7th chord)

One of the doctors left and came back with a stainless steel dish containing the womb...which was bloated with the quartet of 4-inch-long lumps that were the babies. (Thank heaven they didn't cut the thing open and show me what was inside...) By this time Hana, who'd caught either my scent or the sound of my voice, had started wailing pitifully. The doctor's assistant looked and sounded like she was about ready to cry as she gave me instructions on how to care for Hana until she could get her stitches removed. It was hard to listen to, and it was a relief to get the kitty carrier back in the car and on its way home.

Hana had a gauze pad over her belly and a sort of body stocking to hold it in place. She also had a conical, plastic fairing placed around her neck to keep her from licking or biting at herself. Still groggy and weak, she had trouble moving at first, though that didn't keep her down. The body stocking matted her fur down, making her look really skinny, and with that inverted cone around her head, when I once caught a glimpse of her waddling through a dark room, at first I wondered if a weird, Cthulhoid monster with a suction cup instead of a head had somehow broken into this dimension. For almost the entire first day home, she kept going around the house as if desperately searching for something, wailing pitifully the whole time. I couldn't help wondering if she was looking for her babies.

It didn't long for Hana to go back to her usual, energetic self even with that plastic monstrosity around her head. Even despite it, however, she managed to get the body stocking off twice, shredding it the second time, so we finally just left it off. She's more or less back to normal, but she seems somehow even more affectionate. She also hates to be alone a lot more than before. I can tell she's fed up with the thing on her head, though; it'll be coming off in just a few more days.

Hana surgery 1
"It bites us!"

Hana surgery 2
"I kan haz dis sing takn off nau?"


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

109 Ways (NOT) to Celebrate One's Birthday

The Shibuya area of Tokyo is arguably the center of Japanese pop culture. It is the very palpitating heart of coolness, the womb from which trends are born. Anyone who is suffering delusions of being anybody tends to gravitate there by default. To go there is to be a pilgrim of fashion. It is the ultimate dream shopping destination of many if not most teen and twain girls on these islands. Perhaps inevitably, that includes my daughter.

April 3rd is my wife's birthday, and naturally we'd hoped to do something special on that date. As it turned out, it was also the last day during spring "vacation" that my daughter was free of any entanglements. My wife had (unfortunately) promised to take her to Shibuya sometime before the new school year got underway on April 6th. Long filled with irrational dreams of female teen trendiness, my daughter immediately turned up the pressure for her mother to keep her promise. There were discussions, arguments, insults, and lots of complaints before I loaded everyone up in the BLUE RAV4 and headed toward Tokyo.

(I admit that both my wife and I had long wanted to go to Shibuya ourselves, since we hadn't been there in a while, but not like that.)

Some years ago, thanks to a friend of mine who lives in the area (Jeff), I developed a certain habit for whenever I went to Shibuya or other nearby areas of Tokyo. I always parked my car at the pay lot behind Futako-Tamagawa Station and then took the train. Shibuya is only a few stops away. Even better, the pay lot there was relatively inexpensive and never crowded, so it was always easy to use. Note my use of past tense here. Believing it would be business as usual, I piloted the BLUE RAV4 through the expressway network, down the famous (read "always jammed") Kampachi Boulevard, around the newly rebuilt St. Mary's International School, and through the painfully narrow avenues of richville down behind Futako-Tamagawa Station to find a new shopping mall being built on the parking lot site. In other words, no parking lot. I desperately circled around the area looking for local pay lots, of which there are several, but all of them were full. I then fired up Navi-chan and tried to find a pay lot closer to if not in Shibuya. No luck. Nothing but "満車" (full of cars) signs everywhere. Overall, we wound up spending more than an hour just looking for a place to park before I finally found a municipal (read "psychotically expensive") parking garage in Shibuya itself.

We were already way behind schedule by the time we got to the main drag of Shibuya. My wife and I both had lots of things to do back home (not to mention FIL was being cranky about our going off instead of spending all day weeding his flowerbeds), so we hadn't planned to stay long. That now seemed inevitable. Determined to make the best of it in the least amount of time, we split up; I took my son and went to the big Tower Records while my wife took my daughter over to "109", the famous shopping center that caters almost exclusively to young women's trendy fashion.

I spent what seemed like a ridiculously long time in Tower Records and came out with a pile of new CDs (1 prog rock, 3 prog/electronica, 1 eclectic/ambient/new age, and 1 classical, though I somehow talked myself out of buying any classic rock or jazz albums, let alone any more books). There was still no sign of the rest of our bunch, so I called my wife, found out they were still at 109, and threaded my way through the Shibuya crowds headed in that direction.

There was some kind of commotion in front of 109. There was a bit of a crowd gathered at the small stage there in front of the landmark main entrance. I could hear a feminine voice going on and on, seemingly explaining or demonstrating something, but it was too garbled to make out. Just as I was walking past, however, the crowd parted a bit, and I suddenly realized I was passing only just out of arm's reach of Edo Harumi. She's no longer Japan's comedienne du jour (that was in 2008), but she can still draw a crowd. I didn't pay her much mind, though, and soon my son and I were wandering through the hot, humid corridors of spoiled teen purgatory.

Unless you are a teen or twain girl, and maybe even IF you are, 109 is not for the faint of heart. There are a whole bunch of shops packed into a building that really isn't all that large, so space is at an ultra-premium. They are connected by circular hallways that are only just wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Meanwhile, there is a an almost constant, arterial surge of orange-brown hair, excessive eyeliner, soapy perfume, exposed thighs, snotty facial expressions, and even snottier-sounding, lingo-riddled bantering, only broken now and again by a more normal-looking girl or foreign tourist who looks totally shell-shocked. This is either the center of the material girl world or Taliban hell. (It's certainly hot enough in there.) For my daughter, however, it was heaven on earth, and she was not going to be pried out of there easily. Finally, right at about the time my son was on the verge of a phase change (solid to volatile), my daughter decided on her last purchase, so we were able to attempt our escape.

We wound up getting separated by the undulating tide of spoiled femininity, and it took us a couple of cell phone calls to get our bunch together again. Then, with one quick detour to the famous Parco department store for my wife's benefit, we made our way back to the parking lot, got robbed blind paid the bill, and headed back up to the crowded streets. As soon as we emerged from the parking garage exit, it started to rain...hard. Visibility got close to zero, and I had to rely on my instruments to get me back on the expressway. Fortunately, it was fairly smooth going all the way home.

We got back to ye olde stomping grounds almost three hours later than we'd hoped. I wasn't able to make my wife a birthday cake as planned (and she said she didn't want one anyway), so I bought some cakes at a cake shop at the supermarket we stopped at on the way. We had a quick dinner of supermarket sushi followed by cake sans the company of my father-in-law, who was livid and refused to join us. It took a bit of coaxing to get my wife to open her presents, but she seemed a lot happier afterward.

We may never go to Shibuya again, at least as a family.

Incidentally, for those who don't visit me on Facebook, I finished a new tune that was partly meant to be a birthday present for my wife. I'll share it with you. It's an instrumental called "One Rare Moment Together". Enjoy!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Refresh Memory pt. II

As I mentioned at the end of the last post, the last time my father-in-law woke me up was at 6:00 a.m. when he was loudly urging my son to go with him down to the onsen baths. I went back to sleep after he left and got up just a little before 7:00, whereupon I went straight down to the baths myself. Since it was morning, the men were in the smaller "Yu-no-mai-no-yu" facility, which the women use in the evening. Not only was it more compact, but it was also busier than the baths had been the night before; this time it was mainly men around my age and older, meaning no rude comments, but I got stared at a lot. Once again I aimed for the hot bath and then went outside to the rotenburo, which I had all to myself.

After breakfast (which was great though not as impressive as dinner had been), we did a last, quick round of gift shopping, checked out (and found that FIL had already paid the bill), loaded up in the BLUE RAV4, and headed for downtown Sendai. I soon saw yet again just how wonderful it can be to have a GPS navigation system; if I had stuck to the main roads I would've been tied up in a nasty traffic jam. Instead, Navi-chan guided me around through a maze of twisty, little roads, all alike (Plugh!) until we arrived at our first tourist destination of the day: Aoba Castle.

Aoba Castle, also known as Sendai Castle, is really no longer there. An important regional seat of power from the 17th to the early 19th centuries, it was also one of the centers of the samurai resistance against the restoration of imperial rule during the Boshin War. It finally surrendered to the Meiji (restored Imperial) government, which immediately had much if not most of the complex dismantled. Ironically, nearly all of those castle buildings left standing were destroyed when US bombers firebombed Sendai during World War II. Now, although many structures are in the process of being rebuilt, for the most part all that remains of Aoba Castle is a single guardhouse (which we didn't visit) plus the various foundations and earthworks, situated on a high bluff strategically overlooking the city.

Aobajo m1
Now this Shinto shrine stands on the site of what used to be the castle's inner keep. It is called Gokoku Shrine, and like the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, it is dedicated to those who have died in the service of the country.

Aobajo m2
This large, old memorial stands near the edge of the reinforced cliff overlooking the city. I'm not sure, but it may be dedicated to the Date family, the samurai clan that owned the castle till the restored Imperial government took over.

Aobajo m3
There is also a museum there. It includes relics and models plus a virtual tour of the castle using computer animation. Incidentally, the giant ornaments seen hanging in the windows are traditional decorations for Sendai's famous Tanabata Festival celebration. I think it was definitely worth a visit, although we probably wound up spending the most time in the gift shop. After we were done there, once again I had Navi-chan guide me through the winding backstreet mazes of Sendai to the local expressway, which took us to Matsushima.

Since antiquity, Matsushima has been considered one of the three most scenic places in Japan (the other two being Itsukushima in Hiroshima and Amanohashidate in Kyoto). It's a bay filled with tiny, pine-covered islets, and it is indeed very beautiful. Getting to it wasn't so easy even with (or maybe even owing to) Navi-chan; once we got off the expressway and followed the main route toward the coast, we turned off as ordered and suddenly found ourselves on extremely narrow and curvy roads, many of them steep, most of them choked with traffic. Movement was difficult. We were lucky to find a spot right away at one of the pay parking lots down by the waterfront near the main attractions, though I knew well it would probably cost a vital organ.

The first thing we headed for was the Zuiganji Temple complex. Originally constructed as a Tendai Buddhist temple back in the 9th century, it was later converted to a Zen facility of the Rinzai school. It saw several rises and falls over the ages, but it achieved its peak when it was rebuilt in 1604 under the orders of samurai/daimyo Date Masamune, the founder of Aoba Castle if not Sendai itself. The long and complex history of the temple complex has given it considerable significance as well as many notable treasures.

Zuiganji Temple 1
The entrance to the temple was certainly impressive! We made our way down the main avenue, flanked by trees planted long ago, and arrived at the inner circle to find...

Zuiganji Temple 2
...that the famous, huge main hall was being restored and closed to the public. (Interestingly, the construction company sign on the canopy says "Kashima"!) All was not lost, however. Many of the most significant artifacts (or replicas of them) had been moved to one of the other temple buildings, so we were at least able to see them...though photographs were not allowed. The museum was also open, but again I wasn't allowed to take pictures of all the cool things they had down there. Finally, we were able to go and see the recently-restored mausoleum that Date Masamune had built for his wife. It was also off-limits to cameras, which was a shame; it was small but extremely colorful...and shared a lot of design characteristics with the inner sanctum of Kashima Shrine here at home (which makes sense since Date Masamune was alive when the current Kashima Shrine buildings were built). The mausoleum was certainly a jewel with its newly-polished gold fittings and retouched paint, but some people (including my wife) think that restoring it means that it's not really an antique treasure anymore, i.e. it's a rip-off, even though it wasn't rebuilt.

However, by far the most interesting - and eeriest - feature of the Zuiganji complex was the spooky caves carved into the rock:

Zuiganji Temple 3

Zuiganji Temple 4
My FIL takes a shot of some of the caves.

Zuiganji Temple 5
They were carved in the 12th century and apparently used both for memorial services and as storage for the ashes of the dead until the 18th century or so.

Zuiganji Temple 7
There were certainly lots of them, and they were of all kinds of sizes and shapes. Once we'd had our fill of looking at them, we headed over to the waterfront to have a look at the long-famous scene.

Matsushima 4
This little temple pavilion on its own islet connected by a bright red bridge is called Godaido. The original building was constructed at the same time as the first Zuiganji, i.e. back in the 9th century, though the current one was a reconstruction commissioned by Date Masamune in 1604. It was a popular subject of paintings for centuries. Now it gets photographed a lot. The building is closed to the public, but the little islet it sits on is always open and free of charge. Naturally, we went out there.

Godaido's islet isn't far from the pier, but it still offers nice views, such as over toward Fukuura Island:

Matsushima 3

Matsushima 2
Or toward Oshima (far right), which was used as a retreat for ascetic training by Zen monks long ago. I would have liked to go there, but by the time we climbed onto Godaido's islet, the kids were squabbling again, and FIL was driving us nuts with his calls for us to assemble for group photos every two or three minutes. It was time for lunch.

After nosing around a bit on the waterfront for a place to eat that wasn't too crowded and/or preposterously expensive, we finally settled on a soba restaurant up on the third floor of one of the gift shop buildings. We were able to walk right in. The food wasn't bad at all, and the prices were reasonable, but the view of the bay was definitely the greatest asset. A bit of lunch in our bellies eased the tempers a bit, and we were calmed back down when we left to get the BLUE RAV4 and move on.

...which was probably a very good thing. The exit from the parking lot was in a really bad place, so I was pretty much forced to turn the wrong way. I called on Navi-chan to find a good place to turn around, and I couldn't see the street it told me to turn on. With the kids starting to squabble again and FIL trying to analyze and explain every street or alley he could see while attempting to direct me into brick walls, I was about ready to blow a gasket. Finally I just looked for a decent-sized street and tried to go around the block...whereupon Navi-chan directed me back to the little street it had tried to get me to use in the first place. I found to my horror that it was a 0.75-lane street that was partly blocked on one side by vans belonging to construction workers (who completely ignored my wife's request to move) and on the other side by a delivery truck. Backing out was pretty much out of the question, so I had to wait until the delivery truck driver came back and got out of my face. Then I was able to get going the right way. Once we were out of the tightly-packed, narrow roads and on the main route, it was easy going from there.

...for the most part. The next step was dropping FIL off at Sendai Station. He planned to go and stay a few days at his old family homestead just north in Iwate Prefecture. Sendai Station is quite large as it is a central hub for several train lines plus the bullet train. That should make it easy to find, right? Ha ha ha. Actually, it wasn't so bad for the most part; I just stuck to the main roads and followed the signs. However, once we got into the thick of the downtown area, I consulted Navi-chan again just in case, and she kept telling me to go in what was clearly the wrong direction (maybe because my wife had selected a station-side shop rather than the station itself in the search list). Finally I just decided to follow the signs and my instinct. Soon we were in the main passenger drop-off point, and FIL was waving goodbye.

From there we got directly onto the expressway and headed straight home. The weather was beautiful, traffic was moderate, and the return trip was easy and rapid. Except for two quick toilet stops, one near Fukushima (where my wife bought some Mamadore, a famous local sweet, and I bought coffee) and another near Utsunomiya (where my wife bought some gyoza, a local specialty, and I bought coffee), we just stayed on the road. Travel time was more than half an hour shorter than the journey up had been. I didn't even finish drinking the stash of canned coffee I'd bought just in case.

I slept in late the next day, decided to take the day off, and just took it easy, happy that for once I had a spring vacation that was actually a vacation, even if only briefly. Next it would be time to start thinking about birthday shopping for the wife...

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Refresh Memory pt. I

The public school system here in the Land of the Rising Sun has a policy whereby educators are granted extra leave time once every five years and urged to take a trip somewhere. This is known as a "refresh holiday". My wife was up for one during the last school year, which officially ended yesterday. It was only two days, but considering the way our family works it might as well have been two weeks. A combination of the calendar and simple bad luck made a pair of consecutive days off for all of us virtually impossible. That's why, when Spring "Vacation" finally loomed on the horizon, we decided it was then or never. We argued about it, made some arrangements, stepped on a few unavoidable toes as lightly as possible, and booked our reservations. The plan was to go to an onsen (hot spring) resort near the city of Sendai in the Tohoku (Northeast) region, an area my wife and I had never seen. All the end-of-the-schoolyear busywork (including my music club's Big Regular Concert) finally came to an end, Departure Day was finally at hand, and we eagerly got our stuff ready to go.

Naturally, on the evening before Departure Day, it was announced on the news that the weather demons had apparently played dice again; the winds had suddenly changed direction, and the entire Tohoku region was under an unseasonal blizzard warning. That left us with four options:
  1. Scrub the whole thing. (No way!)
  2. Go there by bullet train. (It would cost more than $100 per person one way with a party of five. Not a very attractive option.)
  3. Go there by highway bus or regular train. (It would take pretty much an entire day to get there. Then it would take another full day to get back. That would make the trip pretty much pointless.)
  4. Stick with my original plan and drive there.
We double-checked the weather forecast early in the morning on Departure Day. It said that the worst of the snow had already fallen, at least in Sendai. By nine it was expected to turn to rain. By noon it was expected to start clearing up. The problem was the route in between; the snow was expected to continue through most of the day in the higher elevations. Some parts of the expressway in Fukushima Prefecture could possibly have accumulation. Undeterred, I insisted on going with option four and tossed my tire chains in just in case. We loaded up my BLUE RAV4 and hit the road.

There was rain mixed with snow falling when we left, but by far the worst problem surfaced immediately: frayed nerves. Less than five minutes down the road my kids set to squabbling (as usual) and remained in pouty snits from then on. Meanwhile, my father-in-law (Yes, we brought him along too) was trying to be as annoying as possible by complaining about everything, issuing commands as if he were our tour conductor, and trying to give me directions on roads I'd driven on hundreds of times. After ten minutes of all that, I said I was fully prepared to turn around and go back, which put my wife in a pouty snit. Fortunately, my father-in-law finally shut up after my second polite request for him to put a cork in it, though he kept trying to feed my son his ample snack food (irritating my son and putting my daughter's nose further out of joint). My wife and I both cheered up after a bit of breakfast on the road. The kids refused to be brought out of their sour moods, but we just left them to it.

A new section of expressway completed last year (which isn't listed in my car navi-system, so for a while we were flying over fields and rivers while the poor machine binged at me in confusion) shaved a full half hour from our travel time, and soon we were on the fabled Tohoku Expressway, Northeastern Japan's main north-south conduit, heading north. The mixed rain and snow soon stopped, but not long after we crossed the border into Tochigi Prefecture we started encountering feeble snow flurries off and on. By the time we got into Fukushima Prefecture, climbing almost all the way, we had bona fide snowfall. It was too warm to accumulate, however. Ironically, when we got to the highest elevation along the way, there were signs everywhere warning about snow and recommending snow tires or tire chains not to mention a reduced speed limit, but there wasn't a lick of snow on the ground. In fact, by then there wasn't any snowfall, either. It was smooth driving all the way to the hotel.

Iwanumaya m1 Iwanumaya m3

We were booked into the Iwanumaya Spa Hotel in the famous hot spring resort area of Akiu (秋保), which is technically within Sendai city limits but a bit of a distance from downtown. It is a beautiful area, set along a river nestled among volcanic peaks with ample forest all around. It's secluded and yet equipped with enough conveniences for it not to be too remote. We were there on a weekday in the off season, so there was hardly anyone there. We were greeted and treated like royalty. Check-in took a while because of the extent of the welcome (and also because it took FIL a while to finish gabbing with the manager).

Iwanumaya m4
The view from our tenth-floor room was spectacular.

We had some time before dinner, so we decided to drive up and have a look at Akiu (Great) Falls, considered one of the three most prominent waterfalls in Japan. Japan's waterfalls in general aren't noted for their height - certainly nothing like those of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon - but they can be both highly scenic and highly dramatic. Akiu Falls is certainly no exception; it's about the height of Horsetail Falls in the Gorge but is nestled down in a basin surrounded by picturesque scenery. It's also higher up in the mountains than the hot spring resort. Access can be a pain, as the local bus only comes three times a day, but I was able to make the climb just fine in my BLUE RAV4. As it turned out, however, it was above the snow line. Not only was there still a bit of snow on the ground, but it started snowing just as I parked the car.

Akiu Falls m1
Here's my FIL in front of the little worship hall that stands at the entrance to the falls. The worship hall was a bit enigmatic; it had elements of both a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple, so perhaps it was both.

We hiked over to the viewing platform overlooking the falls, but by then it was snowing HARD.

Akiu Falls 2
Here's a picture I took of the falls. Compare it with the one on the site I linked.

Akiu Falls m3
Either that or compare it with this shot my daughter took with her cell phone camera.

Akiu Falls 3
My kids and FIL are pictured here on the viewing platform. You can just make out the edges of the falls behind my daughter.

Within minutes of our arrival, the snow became more intense and started to accumulate, so we hustled back to the car and went back down the mountain to the Akiu resort area...where we found blue sky. It was still an hour before dinner, so FIL and the kids decided to get in the spa baths immediately. Meanwhile, my wife and I walked over to a nearby convenience store to take care of some things and then came back and did some gift shopping. After that it was our turn to get in the baths. (Check out the bath description at the Iwanumaya Hotel site here. At night the men use the larger "Kanname-no-yu" bath and the women the smaller "Yu-no-mai-no-yu" facility. In the morning they switch.)

I went into the Kanname-no-yu bath facility to find just one group of four or five youngish guys sitting in the wussy cooler end of the main bath. As I came in, one of them glanced up at me and then turned to the others and said, "Kita..." (literally "(He) came." His tone of voice suggested a meaning of, "Look who showed up...") Ignoring them, I proceeded straight to the showers, washed up, and then got into the middle of the long, narrow, natural-looking bath. Next I gradually made my way over to the hot section where the hot spring water pours in directly. Hot spring baths always make me feel strangely energetic, as if I've overdosed on coffee or vitamin drinks, and this one was no exception. I stayed there as long as I comfortably could. Then I got out and walked the (freezing) distance to the rotenburo (outdoor bath), which I had all to myself. I also stayed there as long as I was able to stand it, soaking in the hot, mineral-laden spring water surrounded by garden with a brisk breeze making the steam dance. Then I got out, showered off again, got dressed, and went back to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was FANTASTIC. (My FIL complained at length that the rice was "not good at all," going on and on about how that of Miyagi Prefecture simply didn't compare to the "much better" types grown in our Ibaraki Prefecture and his own native Iwate Prefecture. Then, when the waitress came back, he asked her for a second helping of rice, commenting on how delicious it was.)

We were all pretty worn out after dinner, so we just climbed in our futons and went to sleep. Or tried to, anyway, as was the case with me. My FIL got up and went to the bathroom three times during the night, waking me up every time by banging shut the door (which happened to be right by me). Then, at 3:00 a.m., he started rattling papers as he set to work writing something. Finally, at 6:00 a.m., he started calling loudly from the doorway for my son to go with him to the baths again. (Someday I swear I'm going to throttle that man...)

Then came Day Two, which was even more eventful...and will be covered on another post.

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