Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, August 30, 2010

Travels and Trevails of August, pt. II

No sooner did I arrive back in the Land of the Rising Yen from the Land Down Under than my wife immediately broached the subject of a family trip. We'd already decided that we were determined, come hell or high water, to go on at least one overnight outing sometime during our hectic "holidays". The only problem was that our various schedules allowed only one window wide enough for a trip, and that was the coming weekend, only a few days away.

That didn't give us a whole lot of options. It was the weekend of the Bon Festival, which meant pretty much the entire nation of Japan would be traveling. The travel agent we posed the question to the next day turned a very fetching shade of pale (that actually kind of went with her uniform), but after we'd managed to narrow the search parameters down to one area, she dutifully scanned about and announced that there were three resort hotels with rooms available. She showed us a customer feedback sheet showing how people had rated those hotels, and it turned out that our choices were:
  1. One with excellent facilities, outstanding service and even better food, a best possible overall rating, and a price that would gouge a great white shark's portion out of our budget,
  2. One with good facilities and food but lackluster-to-poor service, a decent overall rating, and a reasonable price,
  3. One with reasonable facilities and outstanding service but mediocre food, a decent overall rating, and a price that was lowest of the three.
We went ahead and booked into option 3.

We weren't sure whether my father-in-law wanted to come or not, but we went ahead and included him in the reservation. As it turned out, he wouldn't come, citing his obligation to attend a number of different funeral-related services happening at the time. We couldn't get a refund for his share, and we'd even been warned there could even be a cancellation penalty (though we thankfully never heard any more about that), but the overall cost was still relatively reasonable.

Saturday morning our 4-person nuclear wessel family loaded up in the BLUE RAV 4. I programmed the hotel address into navi-chan, headed out to the highway, and aimed our nose for:


I'd never really traveled in Gunma before, except just to pass through it on the way to other places. It's a beautiful, mountainous area with lots of jagged, volcanic peaks and forest sprawls that look like something right out of a dream. (In fact, I used a pic from one location in Gunma as the basis for the cover of my View from the Tower CD because I've always thought that area looks like how I picture the Gor'dan Valley on Gotheia.)

Driving on the expressway wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared. We'd actually missed the travel peak by a day, so we didn't run into any serious traffic jams. However, what traffic there was tended to move really slowly - about 20 kph under the regular speed limit - and it wasn't hard to see why. There were police everywhere. Not only were there patrol cars and motorcycle cops appearing practically every few minutes, but I kept seeing officers posted at toll gates, rest area entrances, and sometimes just on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, always just standing there with a radio and a stop flag. (The radio said a lot of people got busted for speeding. I can believe it.) I dodged the traffic clots as best I could while keeping a very close eye on my speed, and soon we were dropping out of warp and entering city traffic.

Driving through the city of Shibukawa (known as the "belly button of Japan" because of its geographical location) was not fun. The streets were narrow, crowded, laid out crazily, and overburdened with signals. Walking probably would have been faster. Again, there were traffic cops all over the place, particularly at the main intersections, so I had to be very careful about how well I observed traffic regulations. Eventually we pried ourselves out of the automotive ooze and found ourselves on a nice, quiet road heading upward. Our destination was at hand.

There is a lot to see and do in the Ikaho area, and we didn't get to half of it. After having a bite of lunch at an Italian buffet, we had some fun at a tourist trap trick art museum.

Ikaho Trick Art 1
Mirror, mirror, on the wall...(aka my better half)

Ikaho Trick Art 4
Same as it ever was...same as it ever was...

Ikaho Trick Art 9
Look, my deer...

Ikaho Trick Art 12

Ikaho Trick Art 13
Oh, you're just lion to me!

Ikaho trick Art 16

It included, among other things, a full-sized replica of the Sistine Chapel that apparently doubled as the set of a monkey show (which we didn't get to see...though I have to wonder whether there is some kind of underlying meaning implied there).

Ikaho Trick Art 19
Seriously. You can watch monkeys perform here.

After that we went to a museum for Takehisa Yumeji, a famous Japanese artist and poet perhaps best known for his postcards depicting Japanese women and his textbook and children's book illustrations in the early 20th century. He was definitely a talented and interesting individual; lacking any formal training, he went on to challenge the artistic conventions of his day, combining French and Japanese styles with his own ideas in defiance of critics and fraternal snobbery and produced a wide variety of works in all kinds of media. The museum gift shop offered courses in producing certain kinds of art and craft works, and the kids wanted to try one of them, but time constraints kept us on the go.

Takehisa Yumeji Museum
Just a couple of tourists at a museum. Yeah.

The museum ticket included another building on the grounds that was a museum of music boxes and player pianos. That was fun. We got there just in time for a demonstration performance, and it was a blast to see what pretty much amounted to the jukeboxes of another time (I mean, coin-operated, menu-select music boxes and a keyboardless player piano!) still making music a century later.

When we were in the gift shop for the music box museum, I felt something land on my arm with a bit of impact and a slight pricking sensation. For the merest fraction of a second before I swatted it off, I saw what I thought was a spider and figured it must have fallen off the ceiling rafters. Immediately the store staff came running, apologizing profusely while one woman got a broom and dustpan and made sure the culprit was dead before scooping it up and showing it to me. It was a Japanese giant hornet, known locally as the suzume-bachi, or "sparrow bee". (I've also heard "hornet from hell", and I think that's an appropriate description!) Suzume-bachi aren't really aggressive by nature, and they don't usually sting unless threatened, so judging from what happened as well as the staff's behavior, I have a feeling they probably either swatted or sprayed the winged demon, and I just happened to be in the way of its dying wrath.

Yes, that's how big these hornets from hell can be.

At any rate, though I had a nice, little, red puncture wound from the stinger, there was virtually no pain and absolutely none of the reactions they warn about (necrotized flesh, exaggerated pain like a hot nail being driven into your bone, anaphylactic shock, etc.), so I figure it never had a chance to inject any venom. I went ahead and bought a CD and a music box at the shop. The staff seemed pretty shaken up, so it was the least I could do. (Maybe they thought that, American as I am, I was probably going to sue them.)

After that, we tried to go to the Ikaho Green Bokujo (Ranch), a ranch-cum-amusement park, for the kids, but the ticket window was already closed. We wound up spending the remainder of the afternoon hitting various gift shops before checking in at our hotel.

The hotel itself was rather old and basic, a good example of classic Japanese simplicity, but it had everything it needed. True to the survey's word, the staff there were fantastic, and they kept us smiling. It was located in the main onsen (hot spring) resort area. Like most such places, there were a lot of hotels, pubs, restaurants, and gift shops packed in tight on narrow roads set into the mountain slope. It would've been nice to explore a bit more, especially since Ikaho is famous for the big, old, stone stairway that serves as its main avenue, but we wound up not. Instead, we had a nice, long soak in the natural hot spring baths (in water that is famously rust red because of the high iron content) followed by dinner which, though admittedly not particularly special, was definitely NOT lacking in quantity! We all stuffed ourselves silly, which made us all sleepy. We wound up turning in early and getting a good night's sleep for a change.

The next morning we hit the baths again (Aaaaahhhhhh....), had breakfast, and checked out. Then I sent the BLUE RAV4 further up the increasingly steep slope of Mt. Haruna so that we could see...(wait for it)...


Lake Haruna 1

Mt. Haruna is a giant volcano that blew itself up a long time ago. Now it's a caldera containing a lake and several smaller peaks. We headed for a cluster of shops on one side of the lake, parked in a free public lot (naturally a bit of a walk away), and poked around a bit. We didn't bother getting on the giant swan tour boat, one of the lakes main photo-attractions, but we did give in to the kids pleas and rent a couple of swan-shaped paddle boats. (My wife and I, in one boat, engaged the kids' boat in a dogfight, but they seemed intent on ramming us.) Hot and sweaty after our bit of marine exercise, we popped into a second-floor cafe for something to drink.

Lake Haruna 4
One of the lake's most photographed attractions, and I don't know why!

Lake Haruna 6
There were a lot of these going around the lake, too.

After that, we headed to the opposite side of the lake, at the foot of "Mt. Fuji of Haruna" (a peak so named because it's a symmetrical cone like Mt. Fuji), where we found not only a ropeway station, but also a go-kart track, riding horses, and a game center. The kids took off to the go-kart track while my wife and I rode the ropeway to the top of the peak. It was lovely up there, though it would have been better without the haze...or the trash-mouthed bikers who wound up sharing our gondola on the way up.

Lake Haruna 7
At the summit of "Mt. Fuji of Haruna". This is the top of the ropeway.

Lake Haruna 10
Looking toward the city.

Lake Haruna 11
The Mrs. pays her respects at the shrine atop the mountain.

I wanted to stay longer, but the wife started fussing over things to do back home, so we headed back down the slope. The kids wanted to try going to the Green Ranch again, but mama said a flat no. Instead, we had lunch at an udon (thick flour noodle) restaurant in a local produce gift shop, loaded up with obligatory souvenirs, and headed out to the highway. (Cue Judas Priest soundtrack)

The highway was more crowded than the day before. Not only that, for some reason they had 50 kph temporary speed limits posted at intervals for some unknown reason. Naturally, there were police everywhere...maybe even more than there'd been the day before. It was a relief when we finally got to Ibaraki, but...

The Mrs. apparently had a change of heart, and instead of home we headed for Tsukuba City. There was a newly-opened shopping mall there that my daughter's friends had been clucking about, and she wanted to check it out. That was all well and good, but getting there turned out to be a problem for several reasons. The crowds and heavy police presence came to an abrupt end as soon as we got on the Joban Expressway in Ibaraki. Most traffic was still going agonizingly slow, however, so dodging through it all was a bit of a chore...made even worse by the arrogant sons-of-bitches who were doing the same thing I was, but at MUCH higher speeds. At one point I came up behind a car plodding along at 80 kph (in a 100 kph zone), checked my mirrors, hit my signal, and punched it to get into the passing lane. Next thing I knew, a car that had to be doing more than 160 kph (100 mph) appeared right in my blind spot (apparently while trying to be a stud and whip around me from the opposite side), veering onto the shoulder to avoid me and landing on his horn. I instantly returned to the center lane, braking to avoid ramming the slow poke. The speed demon than slowed down, pulled in behind me, and opened fire with his horn and headlights. Then he returned to the passing lane and took off again at high speed. (It was a middle-aged man in a Toyota Windom, most likely an arrogant businessman type, i.e. he owns the f*****g road.) Several other cars of similar class came weaving crazily through traffic really fast, so I decided just to bear with the slow traffic till we got off in Tsuchiura...after which we ran into problem number two. My daughter didn't really know where the mall was, information on the internet was scant, and it turned out to be located in an area not yet listed in Navi-chan. We finally had to settle on virtual guesswork, with a lot of wrong turns, till we finally found the place.

My daughter was happy, at least.

After that we headed for home. Summer vacation had come and gone, and it would be back to various grinds soon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Travels and Trevails of August - Pt. I

On the first of August I departed for Australia together with twenty students and three other teachers from Ye Olde Academy for what would be an 11-day sojourn. (Well, if you eliminated days spent only in transit, it was really only a 9-day trip, but whatever.) It was my second such journey, but although the itinerary was essentially the same as before, the schedule was very different. It also wound up being a very different experience.

(Due to the weird scandal that happened a year after my last Australia trip, I can't post any photos that show members of our group or of our sister school, nor can I give many specific details, so I'll just give the general rundown.)

We left Narita Airport in the evening of August 1st aboard a JAL Airlines 767-300. It was a comfortable plane with new, individual entertainment systems. It was also a nice, smooth flight. If it weren't for the fact that I wound up seated next to two boys on an indefinite sugar high, I probably would've slept all the way through. We arrived in the morning of August 2nd at Brisbane Airport and cleared customs without incident.

The first stop after leaving the airport? A big Woolworth's supermarket. Faculty and students alike were like little children at Christmas running around in those big aisles piled high with exotic (read "local Aussie") goods. As for me, I was able to get my required Cadbury Crunchie bar.

After that we headed for the Australia Zoo, made famous by Steve Irwin the "Crocodile hunter" (by crikey!), but now owned by his widow, Oregon native Terri Irwin.

2010 Austrip 10
Not surprisingly, crocodiles were a very big part of the show there. Actually, there were a lot of uniquely Aussie beasties there, like wombats, cassowaries, monitors, and so on, and I would have liked to see some of the less well-known ones, but the group I was with definitely wanted their koalas and kangaroos.

2010 Austrip 1

2010 Austrip 18
Yes, there were plenty of those.

Once we pried ourselves away from the Australia Zoo, we got back on our bus and headed to our sister-school in the sleepy-but-rapidly-growing town of Caloundra, part of the Sunshine Coast.

2010 Austrip 36
(Looking toward downtown(?) Caloundra from Bulcock Beach.)

There our students were introduced to their host families, with whom they would be staying for the following week. Meanwhile, our 2-man, 2-woman (more like 3-Japanese, 1-gaijin) teacher team was checked into the Rydges Oasis Resort Hotel. (Hmm...the linked home page says the hotel is near "the restaurant strip of Kings Beach", which is wrong. Kings Beach is at least a couple of miles away. It's near the restaurant strip of Bulcock Beach. Yet another gripe against that hotel? More on this soon.) We stayed at the Rydges the first time we came to Caloundra, when it was a teachers-only trip back in 2005, and the place hadn't changed a bit. It's a beautiful, comfortable facility with nice rooms, a lovely bar/restaurant next to a pool and lily pond, lots of privacy, and the overall atmosphere is nice and relaxing. In other words, it's exactly what you would expect from a hotel rated with 4 stars.

On the other hand:
  1. The main ceiling lamp in my room didn't work.
  2. The plumbing in one wall was either leaky or poorly insulated; every time someone in the room above me used their sink there was a loud trickling sound that woke me up more than once.
  3. They charged me for calling a toll-free number (which no other hotel I've stayed at in Australia has ever done).
  4. They had wi-fi access, which I used for the first time outside Ye Olde Academy, but it was expensive and slow.
  5. The customer information provided in the rooms was outdated and inaccurate to the point of causing inconvenience. For example, it said traveler's checks could be cashed at the front desk. (Nope; I was told I had to run to a bank several blocks away before it closed in ten minutes.) Also, the "exact change" price given for their coin laundry was totally wrong (i.e. I had to leave and come back after getting a different coin combination at the front desk, which was NOT near our rooms).
  6. Although the front desk staff and other key personnel were really courteous, helpful (to a point, see above), friendly people, the regular restaurant crew could be pretty pushy, even to the point of being rude. For example, I'd set my bread knife down for a moment while still in the process of buttering my toast, and a busperson would immediately snatch it up and hustle off, ignoring my call to return it (i.e. "Get the f*** out of my restaurant, already!").
  7. On more than one occasion we arrived at the restaurant several minutes after it had opened for breakfast to find that the food wasn't really ready yet.
Other than that, it was a very nice hotel. And I definitely appreciated its location near Bulcock Street.

Then there is our sister school itself. (Should I call it "the colorful college"?) It is considerably smaller than Ye Olde Academy, but it's growing. Not only that, but as a very new school that is still very much a work in progress, it is far more modern than us. It's something you can see as soon as you walk into a classroom; whereas Ye Olde Academy is still mainly based on the traditional chalkboard, the colorful college has not only whiteboards, but smart whiteboards (i.e. ones that are also computer displays), not to mention wi-fi access in virtually every room. There are computers everywhere you look, even ones that are ported from class to class on nifty carts that are also plug-in mass rechargers. My use of PowerPoint and videos as lesson tools is still considered rather revolutionary at Ye Olde Academy, whereas at the colorful college it's simply par for the course. I'm also impressed with the amount of individual research and instruction possible at our sister school; we have been trying to do something similar at home, but resistance on both the personal and cultural levels is still considerable. We definitely have a LOT to learn from our smaller, younger Aussie friend!

The faculty and students at the colorful college are also the best. They're just good people on the whole, always going out of their way to make us feel welcome while at the same time impressing us with their ability and their spark...even coupled with their refreshingly stress-free "no worries" Aussie nature! They seem to be almost the antithesis of everything the Japanese stand for, and yet they never seem to fail to get the job done. This was my third visit to their campus, and so far it has been a joy every time. I hope I'll be joining the team when they head there again in two years.

Not that I'm very confident about that right now. There were definitely some problems, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with our hosts. You see, when we visited the colorful college back in 2005 and 2006, my usefulness to the team was never in doubt. I was the one who understood native-spoken Aussie English and could interpret. I was the one who understood Aussie culture and could help keep my Japanese colleagues out of trouble. Heck, even our Japanese tour guides often asked me for help! However, in 2008 the death of my mother-in-law forced me to drop out of the trip that year, and something totally unexpected happened to the Japanese-only group that went: absolutely nothing. There were no problems at all. The repeat travelers realized that now they were able to understand the Aussie English without difficulty, and they had the local culture more or less figured out. In other words, I was no longer needed. That point was driven home firmly this time in that I was pretty much shoved to the back and dragged around like a spare tire. The trip centered around the new chairwoman of the International Affairs Committee (who was passive-aggressively hostile to me the entire trip) and the former chairwoman of the same. The two of them pretty much decided everything. With them was our token administrator, the Chief of Curricular Affairs, who was treated as a special guest. That left me as the unneeded odd man out, and it got old fast. Both my questions and my opinion tended to be completely ignored, as in not even acknowledged. Everything I said was wrong by default, even when proof I was right was right there in plain sight.

The whole scenario was summed up by our breakfast on Saturday the 7th. I finished at the buffet before the others, so I looked for a table for us. I found one that was in a nice, quiet place near the window, affording us privacy and a nice view. However, when I sat there, the next teacher in line, who was the former chairwoman, paid absolutely NO attention to what I was doing (and said nothing to me) and sat at a different table. The other two teachers naturally followed her. That left me with the option of either sitting off by myself and missing the morning discussion or getting up and moving to their location (which is what I wound up doing...not that anyone even noticed). That served as an ugly metaphor for the entire f*****g trip.

It got to be awfully stressful, but I tried not to let it bother me too much. After all, we were in a wonderful location with even more wonderful hosts. Naturally, we ate well, too. I got my required Crunchie and Lamingtons. I also had some awesome dinners.

2010 Austrip 20

This is what I had for dinner our first night in a pub restaurant compliments of our hosts! (The steak weighed a full pound.) We also had dinner at a pretty good Chinese restaurant and a much better Indian one, both on Bulcock Street. (My Japanese colleagues also went to a really famous Thai restaurant there one night, but I opted out, partly because my stomach was wearing out and partly because their company was wearing thin.) I also had a few great meals at various beachfront cafes and got my fast food fix at Subway and "Hungry Jack's" (Burger King).

The very appropriately-named "Cafe by the Beach" by Moffat Beach was especially nice.

2010 Austrip 29

Moffat Beach itself wasn't bad, either.

Speaking of beaches, on Saturday we got together with some teachers from our sister-school and headed to the world-famous Noosa area.

2010 Austrip 35

The beaches and forests in Noosa National Park offered views that were often as exotic as they were spectacular.

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Finding wild koalas there, especially ones that were doing something other than sleeping, was kind of cool, too. I think the others probably enjoyed the stroll in the high-class Hastings Street shopping area more than I did, though the pub-restaurant where we had lunch was something right out of a dreamy tour brochure (meant in a good way). Incidentally, Bluetongue Lager is really nice, especially on tap, and Cascade Pale Ale has a refreshing tartness almost like a hefeweizen. (Make no mistake; I also got plenty of Crown Lager and XXXX Bitter on this trip! I also had a few great NSW wines!)

On Sunday the 8th Bulcock Street was closed to traffic and turned into a giant street market with all kinds of tent stalls. It was packed full of people, something I'm not keen on, but it was still fun. Luggage weight was an issue, so I had to restrain myself, but I still came away with a used book, a couple of scented candles, and a new ocarina to add to my collection. There was some great live music there, too; I was especially impressed by one solo artist who alternated between (or sometimes played simultaneously) a guitar, a small Korg synth, and a couple of different didgeridoos plus a Native American flute (like what I intend to get!), all the while keeping a synthdrum beat going using footpedals!

Speaking of music, that evening was when we were given a "formal" dinner party at the home of one of the teachers from the colorful college. A lot of the faculty was there. We had good wine/beer, some great barbecued cuisine, and good company. What was even more amazing for me, however, was the pair of Irish folk musicians that were performing. (I understood that the violinist is a teacher at the college, while the guitarist/vocalist is known to several of them. Or was it the other way around?) They were really quite good, and I enjoyed listening to them...but it was a bit of a shock when I was handed a tinwhistle and asked to sit in with them! You have to understand: tinwhistle is one of the instruments I play to some extent, and I have performed on it alone and with bands on numerous occasions, but ironically enough, this was the first time I'd ever played genuine IRISH music on it anywhere except in my own bedroom. My confidence was about zero, and I felt both hopelessly rusty and totally lost, but they let me in, and I gradually warmed up to it. At one point, during a break, I started playing the old American tune "Shenandoah" for no apparent reason...and next thing I knew we were jamming on it! It just felt great, and it may very well have been the high point of the entire trip. It was definitely an experience to remember! I was also given the tinwhistle...and a glass of Tullamore Dew (Irish whiskey). :) Hats off and Cead mi faille to some really excellent people!

(I couldn't help noticing that, when I joined in the playing, my Japanese colleagues abruptly disappeared. Not sure what to make of that...)

The next morning was Monday and time to say farewell to our hosts. It's never an easy thing to do, and there were lots of tears. It also took forever to get our kids on the bus, but eventually we did, and soon we were on a Qantas 767-300 bound for Sydney.

2010 Austrip 39

We did mostly regular tourist fare, visiting the Opera House (though unlike last time we were actually able to go inside!) and hitting a famous shopping spot or two. On the second day we went to Blue Mountains to do a bushwalk like last time, but this time it was cold, rainy, and misty, so we couldn't see much of anything.

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There was still color to be seen here and there in that remarkable rain forest, however. We also took a different course from last time, seeing the ruins of the 19th-century mining operation and how they've become part of the local environment.

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Fortunately it wasn't raining (much) when we went to the waterfront near The Rocks that night for our last dinner in Australia.

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We had it at the same excellent Chinese restaurant as before, the one under the sailing ship, with the Harbour Bridge in the background. This time we were out under the awning rather than inside the building, so it was even better. I stuffed myself silly for probably the fifth time that trip. (Remarkably, though I gained nearly 10 kg when I came in 2006, this time my weight changed little if any.)

The next morning we got up bright and early, went to Sydney Airport (where I got grabbed for a random pat-down and luggage scanning), and were soon on our return flight. This time it was a JAL 777-200, said to be the world's largest twin-jet, but we were packed in like sardines; I literally had my knees pressed against the seat in front of me the whole time, and getting up to go to the restroom took a special kind of gymnastics. It was also a very bumpy, turbulent flight. I practiced my Zen meditation for most of it just to keep myself calmed down. Luckily, the modest selection of souvenirs and gifts I'd bought came through okay.

When we got back to Ye Olde Academy, the new chairwoman told our vice principal that she thought we'd all gotten along with each other really well during the trip. That surprised me, since while we were in Sydney I'd finally had enough and had confronted her about her lousy attitude toward me. Oh, well. I guess we'll see what happens when classes start up again.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Deja Vu (again)

Right now I am a member of a group,
And yet I am not.

I am with them in the public eye,
And in front of the audience,
Yet I am kept outside
And treated with scorn.

I am included in the applause,
And in the credits,
Yet I am patronized
And treated like extra baggage.

I am given sugary compliments
And assured of my importance,
Yet the backs quickly turn,
And I am given a deaf ear.

I am reminded of my efforts
And of how they helped get us here,
Yet my work is taken for granted,
And others are held in higher regard.

Limits were imposed on my efforts
And I was told it was for my own benefit,
Yet it seems I'm being punished for it,
And others are taking the bows.

I am here at cost and risk to myself,
And I've put others out by coming,
Yet I'm reminded that I'm an outsider,
And the group celebrates without me.

When all is said and done,
I'll probably be thanked politely,
Yet I may be judged no longer necessary,
And someone more popular quietly put in my place.

Strange how right now on Facebook
I've just reconnected with the group that did it to me before,
Yet here it is twenty-seven years and several thousand miles away,
And I probably won't try getting revenge this time.