Monday, September 29, 2014

Life of Sky

Some people have asked what my days look like when I'm not gallivanting around Japan on a bicycle since I'm not actually able to do that all the time (bummer).  So, here ya go.  This is an average day for me when I go in to Hiroshima for my volunteer job.

Get up at 5:45 with Jeff (ouch).  Throw on some running clothes and we are out the door by 6:00.  We do a little 30 minute run and go roughly 3.5 miles.  Jeff hops in the shower when we get home and I start cooking breakfast.

There is no cereal isle in Japan.  Japanese are happy to eat fish, miso soup and rice for breakfast but I have a hard time with that.  We got a monster thing of old fashioned slow cook oats from Costco (yep, there is a Costco in Hiroshima that has some western food, thank goodness!) that I'll cook with frozen blue berries and walnuts or I make eggs.  Most days it's an omelet with veggies and egg whites (6 eggs with 1-2 yolks).  We eat breakfast together and if he has time Jeff does the dishes (which is really sweet and he gets them done most mornings) while I shower.  Jeff usually makes it out the door a couple minutes before me and walks to the bus stop for work.

I go down stairs and grab my orange bike (not the one that I ride long distances, just a little town bike that has no gears, a basket and weighs a ton).

This is me riding my new orange bike home from the store yelling "YAY!!!"  in a very un-Japanese like fashion and having a marvelous time.
There is a bike garage under the apartment where I keep my town bike (the fancy road bikes get disassembled and stuffed in a closet in the apartment).

Apartment bike garage.

Bike armed with an umbrella (see it tucked in by the rear wheel).  There are certain times of year where you can't anywhere in Japan without an umbrella.
 I hop on my bike and off I go to the train station.  The ride is about 1.3 miles.  Some parts of it are really pretty.  This is my favorite piece.
Ride to the train station.
There is one section in which the trees are full of little birds every evening, without fail.  There are so many of them chirping that it almost hurts your ears, it's crazy!

Once I get to the station, I park my bike.  It costs about a dollar a day to park your bike.

Bike parking at the train station.  This is a tiny portion of the bike parking available.
I leave bike parking, get to the train platform and get on the train.  Usually there is a train about every 20 minutes or so.  If I time things right it's not too crowded and I can get a seat.  Once in a while I get caught in the rush hour crowd and I have to stand.  It's about 35 minutes on the train. One of the favorite past times of Japanese people is sleeping on trains.

Waiting for the train on the platform.
People sleeping.
I usually put on my head phones and listen to a Japanese language lesson or listen to a podcast.

One I get to the much bigger station at Hiroshima I exit the train station and hop on a street car.

Two street cars going opposite directions.
The wait for the street car is only a couple of minutes and is between 15 and 20 minutes to my stop.  I can almost walk to the office as fast as the street car during rush hour but it's faster when it's not peak times and it's nice when it's really hot or rainy.

From the street car stop it's a 5 minute walk to my building.

Work is an odd assortment of things.  I've made a ton of flash cards for the kindergarten class.  Name badges for camp, English practice questions for collage level students, different types of supplemental material for the students.  I'm going to be helping tutor someone on chemistry and biology English terms starting this week and I help out on field trips with the little ones.  They are pretty cute.  I have my third field trip tomorrow where I'm helping with a class going to the zoo.

Herding kids to public transportation

Lunch in the park

Sleepy kids
Yep, the YMCA is silly enough to trust me with small children.  So far, I haven't lost any, had any potty emergencies or had any of the ones that I was assigned cry.  For me, that's doing pretty darn good.

Sorry, no pictures of me using a laminater, though I'm pretty much an expert now.

At the end of the day I repeat the whole transportation process in reverse (my commute is about 1.5 hours each way, which is a bit much for a volunteer job but I'm reimbursed for the transportation expense).  Depending on what is in the fridge I might swing by the grocery store on the way home.  Get home, cook dinner and have a nice evening with Jeff.

And that pretty much sums up a typical volunteer day.  I'll do another post on a non-volunteer day later.

By the way, I hope you all got my "Life of Pi" reference in the title since I think I'm being so witty, but I thought I'd tell ya just in case so you can be all "Yep, that Sky!  She's witty!"  So... Did it work?  ;-)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Shimanami Kaido = Cylcing Heaven

This weekend Jeff and I road the full Shimanami Kaido cycling route.  Depending on where you stay in Imabari it is around 75 to 80 kilometers each way.  Jeff and I had ridden the first 40 kilometers as an out and back but this weekend we booked a hotel in Imabari so that we could do the whole thing (without having to ride it all, both directions, in one day).

It is a fantastic ride that goes over 6 bridges and a short ferry ride.  The route is marked with a blue line on the street and there are signs and rest stops along the way specifically for cyclists.  Many of the restaurants and businesses even have bike pumps, a couple of simple bike tools and will fill your water bottles for free.

Here is a link to the map.

This was our view at our lunch stop on the way there.  We noodles with tempura octopus.  It was really good.

This was our ice cream break.  Green tea vanilla swirl.  Yum!
Jeff and I took a couple of small detours on the way out.  One was a really nasty climb.  It was only 3.8 km long but it made Bogus seem flat.  It was a climb of almost 1000 ft.  It was such a nasty climb that we had to have a second ice cream - lol!  This time it was orange sorbet.  If you haven't figured it out yet, Jeff and I like to eat, and a long day on the bike is a great excuse.

Looking back the way we came

The big bridge.
The big bridge is over 4 km long and is the longest cable bridge in the world.  It was pretty impressive.

One of the most impressive things about this ride is the infrastructure they invested for cyclists.  Here are some of the ramps that are cyclist only that they built for getting on and off the bridge.  

The bigger road that is closet to me when I took this picture is the main bridge.  The small road that splits off of it is the cyclist ramp.  This is only for cyclists and connects to the main bridge but is totally separated from motorized traffic.  This was typical of all of the bridges on this route.

Jeff took this one of me going down the ramp from the bridge.  
Imabari has a really nice castle so we walked around in the evening and took a few pictures.  The moat is fed from the ocean and had ocean fish in it.  It was really neat to see the fish jumping to catch bugs as we were enjoying the view.

Imabari castle lit up at night.

This one gives a little better feeling for how huge it was.
We stayed in a really nice hotel in Imabari with a king size bed, which was awesome, even though it was still Japanese firm (think of putting a thin blanket on the floor and that is a little softer than a Japanese bed).  It was really nice to have a bigger bed for a change.

The next morning we got an early start and rode back towards home.  Here are a couple more pictures of the big bridge.  
Crossing the bridge.  Like mentioned above, separate from cars.

Last pic of the monster bridge.
Jeff and I had a wonderful weekend trip. It was delightfully uneventful.  No crashes or mechanical issues, good weather.  Just a super pleasant and beautiful weekend riding bikes.  If anyone is in to cycling, I highly recommend this route and it's neighbor Tobishima Kaido (the 7 bridge ride I've previously mentioned).  Amazing.

Very typical view of route.  You can see the blue line that marked our route.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Japanese Hiking Club

Saturday Jeff and I had a much needed lazy day.  We didn't do much and it was lovely.

Sunday we went hiking.  I found a Japanese hiking club that is based out of Hiroshima.  They do a group hike about once a month.  I thought it would be a fun way to get to see things and meet people who like being outside.  

The hike this month was up a pyramid shaped mountain called Mount Ashitake (pronounced Ah-shi-ta-ke).  We met up with another car full of people at the train station, and followed them.  Picked up another couple of cars along the way.  There was 9 of us total, Jeff and I, 2 Americans that have lived in Japan for over 20 years and teach English, and 5 Japanese.  Everyone was very  nice and spoke at least a little English.    We were told that this was a small group, they usually have way more people.  

We got to the hike start and were happily walking down the path, but the further we got, the less the path seemed like a path.  Eventually someone spoke up that there was an arrow right at the very beginning that we passed.  So, we turned around and sure enough, 20 feet from the start was the correct trail - lol!  Reminded me of my collage hiking club days.

The hike was steep.  It started in a cedar forest which changed in to more deciduous trees and then in to pines.  At the top on one peak was some ruins from a temple, the date was uncertain but several thousands of years.  At the top of the second peak was a beautiful view and a lunch break.  

Deciduous forest

Column from the temple ruins

Layers of hills in the distance from the top of the mountain

The view the other direction

The hiking group at the top ready for a lunch break
 After the hike they decided to make a short detour to a temple that was for a sky god.  They thought it was cool because of my name.  It was a cool little temple with two enormous cedar trees.  It took 5 of us linking hands to circle one tree.  It also was unique because the lion statues that guard the temple were looking up at the sky where they normally always look forward.

Huge cedar tree
The second detour was to a enormous park.  It was the size of an amusement park in the US.  It had different flower gardens for different seasons, lakes, bike paths and a huge playground.  I could have spent a whole day wandering around.  The reason for the detour was the cosmos flowers.  They had a beautiful garden of late summer flowers.

Cosmos flowers
More flowers
It was a fun day and we are hoping to be able to join the group for their October hike.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What I'm not doing...

So far I have posted on the things that I'm doing in Japan.  This post is about the things that I'm not able to do because I'm in Japan.

I was not able to help out a friend and bring her a cooked meal after she had surgery.  I couldn't give her a hug.  I couldn't let her know that everything would be ok and make her laugh but telling her a funny story about my first surgery, before she went in for hers.

I can't meet my friend for coffee when she has a stressful day at work and needs to complain about her boss and have a friend empathize and just be there and offer support.  It's hard to show her that she is awesome and loved from so far away.

I couldn't take care of my dog when he was sick and pet him and make him comfortable.  I know my dog sitter did this but I can't help but feel that he needed me and I wasn't there for him.  He doesn't understand why I left him or know that I'm coming back.

Yesterday a good friend of mine was hit by a car while riding her bicycle.  She had qualified for the world ironman championships in Kona this year (that's a huge deal) but will be unable to race.  I can't comfort her on that loss.  She will have months of physical therapy as her broken bones heal and she regains mobility.  I can not offer to take over a meal when she is recovering or take long walks with her once she regains some mobility or give support at the frustrations of injury and a long recovery.  She has a very long unpleasant road ahead and throughout that process, I'll be here, on the other side of the world, not with her helping out.

Yes, I miss good cheese and being able to effectively communicate but what I miss the most are the people I left behind.  I hate not being there for the people who have always been there for me.  This is truly the hard part of living abroad.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Oki Islands - day 3

Monday was a Japanese holiday so Jeff had the day off of work.  It was really nice to have the extra time to enjoy Oki.  I woke up feeling much better and we had the traditional Japanese breakfast in the hotel.

Breakfast was rice, miso soup, eggs (sort of omelette-ish thing), sea weed (2 varieties), red beans (they are sweet), salad, pickled vegetables and grilled fish (grill your own at the table).  It was very interesting and most of it was quite good but not really what I think of as breakfast food.  Jeff and I still managed to eat most of it.

We then went back to the port and took another ferry to a third island, rented some clunker bikes and went to check out some cliffs.  They were red and were amazing against the clear aquamarine water.

From this angle, the whole in the bottom of the rock is heart shaped.
We had a great time on the bikes.  We then went back to the first island and then took the ferry home.  We had a great time.  The islands were beautiful.  We were on 4 different types/sizes of ferries, buses, taxis, bikes, kayaks, dive boats and bicycles, experienced a Japanese style hotel and had an amazing adventure.  I'll end with a couple of random pretty pictures from the weekend.

On the walk to Kayaking.

Fishing boat heading out at sunrise from hotel room window.

Morning clouds from hotel room window.

Eagle we were watching circle from hotel room.  He got much closer but this is the only photo in focus.  It was awesome to watch it soar around and ride the thermals.

Oki Islands - day 2

Jeff and I woke up early in the morning, caught a bus, caught a ferry to another island.  We were meeting someone at the ferry to take us diving.  Jeff went in search of something for breakfast (we couldn't find anything open that early in the morning on the island we were on) and I was looking for our person.  There was a little misunderstanding but we got it all figured out.  The ride to the dive site was very curvy and I wasn't sure if it was the long wait for breakfast, what we ate for breakfast or just the road but I was feeling a little green by the time we got to the dive center.  

They were concerned that the sea was really choppy that day and the boat ride to the dive site would be rough so we decided to do the first dive close to shore, which was fine with me.  Jeff and I have been spoiled with diving.  We have only been to the Great Barrier Reef and Phuket in Thailand which are both tropical and phenomenal.  The diving in Oki is not of that caliber in the best of conditions but on a choppy day like we had... We did see some cool things.  We say tons of shrimp, which I haven't seen before.  There was an octopus in a hole and its tentacles snaked out and were very creepy and cool.  There were these three black and white fish that were maybe 5 inches that kept following Jeff and cracked me up.  I think they were with him for 15 minutes or so.  All and all it was a good dive but not fantastic.

After the dive we rinsed off the salt water and hopped in this home made hot tub made out of an old boat with a wood burning heater, to warm up - it was awesome!

Once we got out of the water, I realized I had a pretty nasty headache and I was feeling queasy again.  We had lunch (I fed most of my fish to Jeff and stuck with rice and tofu).  I didn't think I felt up to a second dive so I sent Jeff out and took a little walk instead.

One of the things that seem crazy, is how beautiful the area is yet, there is no premium on the beach front property the way there is in the States.  This is true around Hiroshima as well.  I guess if you have as much coastline as Japan it's no big deal.  Here is a guy harvesting rice right next to a beautiful coastline.

A tide pool I found.
I got back from my walk about the time Jeff got back from his dive.  He said it was really choppy where the boat went so it was a good thing I didn't go.  He said the fish were better and he saw several schools and it was a pretty cool dive.  

I felt a little better after the walk and was talked in to trying some turban molluscs.  They were fresh from the sea, and the guides were really excited that we were willing to try them.  They weren't too bad but a short while later I wasn't feeling quite so good again.  We then piled back in the van to go back to the port and at that point I really wasn't feeling well.  I'll gloss over this part as it isn't really very pleasant.  It's safe to say that my stomach was very empty by the time I got off the ferry.  Jeff got us a taxi back to the hotel which was much faster than the bus.  He also arranged for me to have some plain rice for dinner in the hotel before he went out to find food for himself.  I took a bath in the room and ate my rice and felt much better.  It's always tough when you don't feel well when you are far from home but it's even tougher when the food is so foreign and it's hard to find the things that make you feel better, like saltine crackers.  Jeff tried really hard and I woke up the next morning feeling excellent.

Oki Islands - day 1

A few weeks ago I decided that I wanted to go some place in Japan that we could play in the water before it got too cold.  I started doing a little research on places that were not super far away from Hiroshima and I found the Oki Islands.  They are a small grouping of islands that are north of us.  It turns out that they are a really odd place for foreigners to go and it is usually just Japanese tourists that go there and even not many Japanese go there.  Its sort of an odd spot.  I love finding odd places so this didn't deter me at all.

We started on Saturday morning with a couple hours driving to the ferry port.  We then hopped on an absolutely enormous ferry.  One thing that was very interesting was the lack of seats.  Instead there were large areas that were raised about a step up and covered with tatami mats.  Tatami is the traditional flooring for Japanese.  The mats are usually made from rice straw and are a very nice texture.  Everyone took off their shoes before getting on the mats and sat or laid on them.  Jeff and I opted to sit outside since I thought the fresh air would be good since I tend to have motion sickness problems.  The crossing wasn't too bad.  It was a beautiful day and the water wasn't too rough.

Approaching the islands on the ferry.

Once we found our hotel (a short bus ride from the dock) we relaxed a little and then found our sea kayak guide.  We had signed up for sunset sea kayaking.  A short drive to the put in and off we went.  It was absolutely beautiful.  The coast was cliffs and craggy rocks.

This is where we started paddling.
Birds on a rock.
This was Jeff's view.  It was a 2 person kayak.  The guide suggested Jeff sat in the back.  He had the camera and took the initial pictures.
We kayaked through a couple caves which was spooky and a little nerve racking.  We actually just pushed ourselves along using the walls of the cave, not paddles.  The surges from the waves made this tricky as the water level fell and rose several feet.

Pushing along the walls in the first cave.
We got out of the boats for a bit to take pictures of a fantastic rock arch and some craggy rocks.  It was ridiculously pretty.  We only had Battle-Cam (our old, fairly beat up camera that is literally held together with tape that we use when the probability of getting wet or dropped is high) but it still did a great job with the pictures.  The hard thing with Battle-Cam is it only has a digital screen, no view finder, so in the sun on days like this we are taking pictures half blind and hoping they turn out.  This just goes to show how stupidly gorgeous it really was.

The arch.

Look closely on this one and you can see a guy fishing on the rocks.

The guide took this one of me taking pictures.  I was having a wonderful time.
We then got back in the kayaks to watch the sun set while in the water.  Japanese love to rank things.  We are always seeing things like "one of the 5 most scenic pagodas" "one of the top 100 places to view fall leaves" "one of the top 10 gorges" and so forth.  It cracks me up, they never give the exact rank but they like to say that it is "in the top".  So in that spirit, this was "one of my top 3 sunsets".

I have a really hard time picking photos on days like this.  There are way too many that I like for different reasons.  I apologize for this being a massive blog day.

After kayaking the guide offered to drop us at our hotel.  We asked to be dropped at some place for dinner instead and specifically requested someplace with sushi or sashimi.  We were dropped in front of what looked like some guys house.  After opening the door was a tiny restaurant with one traditional Japanese table (tatami floor and low table with a small cushion to sit on) and 3 bar stools.  We had both sushi and sashimi and it was the best we ever had.  Fantastic.

Sushi!  Yum!
We then finally made it back to the hotel and only had one more challenge/adventure... public bathing.  Public bathing is big in Japan.  They like their hot springs and public baths.  The only hotel I could find with rooms available this weekend is Japanese style with tatami floors, futons and public baths (there was a super tiny bathroom with a sink, toilet and shower in a 3 x 5 room, the smallest bathtub I've ever seen) but we decided that part of learning about Japanese culture is getting naked with them.  A little more about Japanese style hotels really quick.  The hotel provided slippers at the entrance.  You leave your shoes at the front door and wear slippers everywhere in the hotel.  The futons are stored in the closet and are laid out at night, so during the day the room is very empty.

In this hotel they had separate men's and woman's baths (thank goodness).  There were 5 women on the ladies side.  The drill is you shower, get cleaner than you ever have in your life and rinse, before you get in the bath (so you don't contaminate the water).  There was a wall of showers with hand held sprayers.  You sit on a little stool and scrub yourself thoroughly and wash you hair.  It is all very public.  I'm not super prudish but it is really intimidating when you feel like you are being judged (particularly because I am a foreigner) on how well I bathe.  Not that I saw anyone looking, but you just feel...  yeah.  Not super comfortable.  The ladies left while I was in mid-scrub which made me feel much better.   I relaxed in the hot water for a little while before heading out.  The hotel provides nice cotton robes to go back to your room from the shower.  What I didn't realize was that I should have brought my towel too.  Sigh, fail.  Well, it was a learning experience and next bath I'll have a much better idea on how things work.  We then collapsed on our futons and slept really well.

Jeff in the hotel in the day time.

Hotel room at night with futons laid out.