Friday, February 27, 2015

Nikko day 1

As I'm traveling, I'm stuck using my iPad to blog.  It is definately more difficult than the computer and there are things I cannot get to work like spell check, photo sizing and positioning and captions on photos.  Sorry about the drop in quality.

Getting to Nikko from Hiroshima took a good chunk of the day.  We left home around 7 AM and arrived in Nikko around 2 PM, by train.  Nikko is a national park that is about 2 hours outside of Tokyo and has a nice mix of pretty nature things and some Japanese history including a couple of world heritage sites.  The weather was pretty miserable when we arrived being only slightly above freezing and raining consistantly.  We decided to brave the elements and do some exploring.  

Usually, I put forth a great deal of effort trying to take photos without a whole heard of tourists wandering through them.  That was not a problem this time as the weather was miserable enough to keep everyone else away.

First we checked out the Rinnoji temple Taiyuin mausoleum.  It was several very ornately carved buildings dedicated to the third Shogun.  The time frame is 1600's.

Entrance to the shrine.

A cool lantern.  They has a bunch of these that were made out of copper or stone.

Me in Jeff's ski jacket trying to stay warm.  Thank goodness his coat still fits me, none of mine do.

The shrine.

This was near the entrance.  It was a small waterfall that looks like it is coming out of the mouth of a dragon and then through a serries of colverts to a trough that holds water to purify your hands before entering the shrine. 

This is the actual mausoleum.

After we had enough of the cold and wet we found a small cafe that had amazing hot chocolate and delicious cake to warm us back up.  It was a good start to vacation!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Heating in Japan, warming toilet seats not rooms

I think I might have alluded to the lack of real temperature control in Japan before, this has been a source of annoyance for me for many months as I hate being cold.  Last week was particularly cold so I'm particularly bitter about it. 

There is no central heat in most buildings.  Our apartment has a heater in the main room, and one in both bedrooms.  One of the bedroom heaters is old but is amazing, it actually makes real, honest to goodness heat.  Of course it is the super tiny bedroom that is currently used as the "drying room" for laundry, will be our guest room when people visit and eventually will be the baby room.  Our bedroom will actually get to non-fridged temperatures if the curtains are closed, the door is closed and the heater is cranked up.  The main area of the house (living room, kitchen and dining room), you know, the area where I spend all of my time, does not get all that warm.  The heater seems woefully undersized for the space.  When home, I spend most of my time under a very warm and snugly blanket from Costco.  I wear far more clothing indoors than I would in the states.  The hall way and the bathroom are always cold since nothing actually heats that space unless you leave the bedroom heater maxed and the door open all the time and then its just cool, not cold.

Work is the same way.  They heat the office area where everyone is working but the hall way, bathrooms, entry and any unused classrooms are colder than the inside of my Japanese refrigerator!  One of my co-workers is a Romanian named Ruxy.  She always wears about 12 layers of clothing and is always complaining about being cold.  One day someone asked her about Romania being cold and her response was "Yes, Romania is cold but it's a civilized  country where people have discovered HEATING!"  Totally cracked me up.  I just don't think that personal comfort is much of a Japanese thing.  It's a shame.  Its something I value and appreciate.

The one thing that the Japanese do to make this trend of freezing bathrooms somewhat bearable is they love heated toilet seats.  That's right, so when you go in to a bathroom that 40'F at least when you sit down the porcelain isn't cold.  At first it's a little strange to sit on a warm toilet, expectantly in a public bathroom.  It makes you feel like not enough time has passed between you and the previous occupant for the seat to cool down...  but once you get used to it, its rather pleasant and certainly better than the alternative.  Our apartment has a heated seat and we use it.  It is the one thing that has made my shrinking bladder bearable in our icy bathroom.

I miss central heating.  I probably miss it more because when ever I go anyplace I'm out in the cold air, on a bike or walking.  I miss coming in from the outside and feeling that contrast of inside being toasty when it's cold out side instead of it just being just slightly less cold inside.  Hopefully spring will come soon!  Until then, I'll stay under my blanket and my toilet seat shall remain heated.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Prengnat in Japan: Part 5 - Poppa class

Friday was a busy day.  I have my Japanese lesson every Friday and I'm now also taking tea ceremony class every 2nd and 4th Friday after my Japanese lesson.  No, I don't have to wear a kimono every time, the other ladies do not wear kimonos it's one of those I can if I want to things but will only do occasionally cause it isn't all that comfortable and takes forever.

After tea ceremony class it was back to the doctor for my monthly baby check.  She is up to 80% girl.  Jeff and I have decided to just call it a girl at this point if any one asks.  The doctor was really looking for anything that dangled and it sure looks like a girl to me!  I made my doctor happier this month by only gaining a little over 1 kg which is preferred in Japan.  I personally don't really care but it's funny to me.

After the doctor Jeff and I got cleaned up for a nice dinner out for the anniversary of our first date 17 years ago.  Jeff took a couple of bump pictures so here you go...

Sunday was very interesting for us.  Higashihiroshima city hall has free classes for new parents.  There is a Poppa and Momma class and a just Momma class.  Sunday was the Poppa/Momma class.  And "Poppa" seems to be used in Japanese for dad.  I'm taking the Momma classes in March and there are 3 of them as opposed to the just one day for the guys.

Jeff and I are getting much better at Japanese but not enough to handle this type of thing so I arranged to have an interpreter.  We were fortunate to get the same lady that had helped us previously.  I really like her and she does a great job.

There is a small booklet that they give us (all in Japanese, of course) that is Finding Nemo themed.  I'm guessing they were playing up the parental role of the dad in that movie.  The first part of the class is the poppas have to learn how to give the baby a bath.  There were little tubs set up and towels and clothes laid out and each station had a weighted baby doll.  The teacher went through a very precise set of instructions and demonstrated the procedure.  The instructions included exact room and water temperatures for bathing and a 8 step exact pattern process for wiping the baby's faces.  The Poppas then were set loose to try and wash their babies.  Jeff was super cute and extremely careful.  I thought it was interesting that they emphasized that bathing the baby is something that fathers do, not mothers.

Next we went to a different room where each of the guys drew a slip of paper that had a task on it.  They guys went up, two at a time and put on a weighted pregnancy vest thing.  It was shaped like a pregnant belly and breasts and weighed 13kg (roughly 26 lbs).  They then had to perform the task that was something their wives most likely did routinely.  Jeff had to leave the room, put on his shoes and take a walk down the hall.  I think he now understands much better why I'm wearing my slip-on shoes most days and not my knee high boots.  Other guys had to vacuum, pick up object scattered on the floor, try and cut their toenails with the belly in the way, make a futon bed, and lie down like they were sleeping.  I think the whole point was to have the guys empathize with their wives a little bit and understand why it takes a little longer for us to do things.  I think it worked cause I got a really nice back rub last night!

Jeff sporting his baby bump

At this point, Jeff is about 9 month to my 6 - lol!

The third section was a video in which they showed how babies react to their fathers and really stressed the importance of fathers spending time with their babies.  I think this is an attempt to make a cultural change in Japan.  The old way of thinking is that good fathers are just providers for the family but are really not all that involved with the kids.  Jeff and I both felt that a big part of the class was just trying to get the men more involved.

The whole thing was very interesting and I like the idea of Jeff being the bath master. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hiking Club and Oyster Festival

I'm a little bit of a slacker with getting this one written but on February 8th we went hiking with the hiking club again.  It was the shortest hike we have done with the group so far and not particularly spectacular but it was nice to get out in the woods and hike.  The hike was about 2 hours of up hill (the first 30 minutes paved and then on steep and winding single track).  It started with a shrine and a very pretty waterfall.


Obligatory red, arched bridge

Really pretty little water fall

Proof I hauled my pregnant self on a hike ;-)
 It was a cold day and since I have gotten quite a bit rounder, I borrowed Jeff's ski jacket, long johns, shirt and wind pants.  There was a chance of rain that day and I didn't want to be wearing cotton which produces no warmth if it gets wet.  I have heard that pregnant people are always warm, that might be true for some people but I seem to have retained my adversion to cold and particularly to cold and wet.  If you notice, I even have my umbrella strapped to my  backpack, you can see the handle sticking out.

When we got to the top of the mountain, we stopped for a little snack.  Jeff and I had thermoses of hot chocolate and dark chocolate kit-kats to share (sharing snacks is very much a part of the hiking club tradition).  As we were eating our snacks, it started to rain rather hard and those of us (about half) with umbrellas huddled under them (and those that mocked us, ahem, Jeff, got wet). The rain turned to snow and the general falling of wet stuff lasted about 20 minutes.  It cleared up pretty quickly and we started the hike down.  I was glad for all of my layers and stayed dry and warm.

Bit of a nice view on the way up

Looking back at the town where we started.  Across the water is Miyajima (the red gate in the water that I've been to a couple of times)

Looking out at the islands across the way
 The hike was a loop so we went back a different route than we came up.  The descent was fairly steep and slippery in places where there were large rocks.  Most of the way down there were handy trees to grab but occasionally where it was particularly steep and slippery I just sat down and slid on my butt so I didn't have to worry about falling, it worked great.  We got down in about an hour and hopped back on the train, went two stops and got off at a town having an oyster festival.

Looking back at mount Jou (pronounced Joe)

 The Oyster Festival was a large number of food venders with tents set up (sorry, I should have taken pictures but didn't) and selling all varieties of food.  There was grilled, fried and raw oysters, ramen with oysters, cotton candy, hot dogs wrapped in fried squid, all manner of meat on a stick and french fries, to list a few.

Hiroshima is rather famous in Japan for having fantastic oysters.  I've had oysters in Hiroshima several times.  My favorite way is grilled in the shell.  They are still not my favorite thing and I must say that the french fries looked far more appealing so Jeff and I split some fries and fried chicken and skipped the oysters.  It seems like a bit of a waste but it was really good.

Jeff and I went home full and happy for the fresh air and sunshine, took hot showers to warm up and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon on the couch watching netflix.  It was a great way to spend a Sunday.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Nagano Trip: Snowboarding and Sushi

Jeff's Story Continues:

Compared to the first day, the rest of my excursion to Nagano Prefecture was much less complicated.  All I really did was snowboard and eat.

My first day on the Nozawaonsen mountain began with 5 inches of fresh snow overnight.  After a quick breakfast at the hotel (toast and eggs), I headed up to the base of the main gondola, bought a 2-day lift ticket and rented a snowboard.  I have one in Boise, but it stayed there because it's old and I figured anything I'd rent would probably be newer and better quality--not worth taking up valuable storage space in our apartment.
Looking up at the mountain from outside my hotel

People at the base of the gondola
 Once I got underway, it was a great day on the mountain.  With the exception of different languages being spoken on the lifts, snowboarding in Japan is very similar to snowboarding in the US.  The first day I learned my way around as it's a fairly large ski area and found some fun places to ride through the trees.  Being used to pine trees, it's quite interesting riding through trees that have lost their leaves.  It makes it a lot easier to see where you're going.  Both days of boarding had similar snowy/white out conditions, which didn't make for very good pictures, but made for excellent powder.  On my second day I woke up to 18" of new overnight snow!  That was the biggest powder day I've ever experienced.  Fortunately I only got stuck a few times.  Here's a few random pictures from the mountain.

 When I wasn't on the mountain, I was meandering around town or eating sushi.  Since US doctors don't think pregnant ladies should eat raw fish, Sky and I haven't been going out for sushi.  I made up for that during my trip by eating sushi all 3 nights.

The town of Nozawaonsen was an idyllic resort town/traditional Japanese hillside village.  Very picturesque in all of it's snow covered glory.  Here's some town shots from my wanderings.

Overall it was a  fantastic trip and a fun excuse to see another part of Japan!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Nagano Trip Day One: Snow Monkeys!

Doing something a little different this time.  My husband Jeff took a little adventure on his own last week, so I asked him to share his story as a guest blogger.  Hope you enjoy his story!

 Jeff's story:

For Christmas, my awesome wife arranged a trip for me to go snowboarding in Nagano prefecture.  Japan has some amazing snow and it was one of the things on my "Things to do in Japan" list.  Since Sky is pregnant, snowboarding for her is not recommended, so she sent me off last week on a solo adventure to the north.

As you may remember, Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998, so it seemed like a great place to get an authentic Japanese snow experience.  My destination was the resort town of Nozawaonsen, a picturesque traditional town nestled up to the bottom of a ski resort about an hour north of the city of Nagano by bus and train.  This area, like many in Japan, is filled with geothermal activity which leads to the presence of many "onsen" which is the Japanese term for hot springs.

The Nagano area has another claim to fame besides Olympics hosting and great snow, and that's the "snow monkeys" of the Jigokudani Monkey Park.  This park was close enough to my final destination in Nozawaonsen to be a possibility to squeeze into my weekend itinerary.

So, I set out early Friday morning on the first leg of my trip, from a snowy train station in our town.

The first two legs of my trip were on the Shinkansen, in Okayama I changed from the "local" bullet train (that stops at all of the stops) to the express that only stops at a few stations on its way to Tokyo.  I didn't go all the way to Tokyo, but changed to a slow regional express train in Nagoya.  Since there was some minor delays on the Shinkansen (doesn't happen often but did that day), I missed my planned train and was delayed an hour at Nagoya station.  The downside to that was it cut into my afternoon Monkey Park time, the upside is while waiting for the next train I was chatting with another American (identified by Seattle Seahawks jersey and baseball hat) who was a musician (identified by the fact he was carting around a guitar and a bass) touring in Eastern Japan.  His name was Nathan Aweau (I Googled the name on his bass case) and it turns out he is an amazing bass virtuoso.  Check out this video for an incredible bass solo, it's a little slow until after 1:20.

The train to Nagano was slower, but quite beautiful as we wound our way up into the higher elevations along a rushing river and through wooded pine and bamboo forests.  The snow started in earnest after about an hour on the train, making me very excited for my snowboarding the next day.

I arrived at Nagano station and got the bus and train schedules to get to the Monkey Park as well as to my hotel in Nozawaonsen.  The guy at the tourist office was very helpful, although he was skeptical that I'd be able to see the monkeys and still make it to my final destination.

Side note for anyone visiting Japan: although they have awesome public transit, be mindful of when the last trains, buses, and ferries stop running for the night, especially in the smaller towns and rural areas.  You might find yourself taking a very expensive taxi ride, or being stuck on an island if you're not careful.  This hasn't happened to us, fortunately, but we've had to make on the fly adjustments to our plans a few times.

From Nagano station, it was another 50 minutes on a bus to the stop nearest the monkeys.  I got off the bus at 3:15.  Jigokudani Monkey Park has an official closing time of 4PM.  It was a 3km walk, uphill, in the snow, to get to where the monkeys were.  The faster I got to the monkeys, the more time I'd have to watch them and take pictures.  So, I cinched down both of my backpacks (yes, I was carrying all of my snowboard gear and clothing in a large backpack) and I ran to the monkeys!  Fortunately, I've been running a few times a week so I was somewhat prepared, but it still was pretty exhausting.  And everyone was looking at me like I was crazy (which is pretty normal over here even when you aren't running uphill in the snow).

Jigokudani Monkey Park is not fenced in or anything.  Its just a little valley, with a river running through it, a bunch of snow, and a small onsen where the monkeys like to hang out.  There are approximately 200 monkeys that call this area "home."  I made it in time to get in, see the monkeys and take a bunch of pictures.  Here are some of my favorites:

One of my favorite parts of visiting the monkeys was actually walking out of the park.  Most of the visitors has left and there were just a few of us stragglers walking along the trail back to civilization.  And the monkeys were all walking with us; bounding back and forth along the trail, climbing and jumping through trees, calling out to each other, and generally being adorable.  They really are amazing animals!

Another bus back to Nagano Station, a quick stop for sushi and sake, another train and a taxi and I arrived safely and exhausted at my inn in Nozawaonsen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Setsubun Festival (bean throwing)

Setsubun is the Japanese way to welcome spring.  It occurs the day before the first day of spring.  On the day of Setsubun people take a handful of the beans and throw them outside while shouting Oni wa soto! (Demons, get out!). They then throw another handful inside, shouting Fuku wa uchi! (Good luck, come in!). Often someone plays the part of the oni (ogre or demon), who wears a scary mask and, after scaring the crap out of the kids, runs outside covering his head and cowering while being bombarded by beans.
Several of the shrines around Hiroshima had some sort of  celebration for the festival.  I went to a shrine in Hiroshima in the afternoon to witness one of these celebrations.  It started with some sort of ritual in the shrine that involved drumming, chanting and women moving very gracefully with fans and bells. 

Here are the happenings in the shrine
Another picture of the shrine.  The lighting was tricky and all I had was my phone to take pictures so I apologize for the image quality.
At the end of the shrine ritual, several hand fulls of beans were thrown out of the shrine.

Next came the ogre and the archer.  The "ogre" was represented as a panting and the archer had a pretty impressive looking long bow.  There was much ritualized aiming at the 4 directions, up and then down and then the shots were fired.  The first two missed, I'm fairly certain this was on purpose to add more drama and the last shot went right between the eyes of the ogre.

Next came the bean throwing.  There was a small platform that was erected in front of the shrine.  Everyone gathered around and the guys from the shrine mounted the platform and threw little bad of dried soy beans off the top while people down below caught them.  They also had a couple of small balls that they threw down which apparently could be exchanged for prizes.  People took bean catching pretty seriously.  After getting jostled a little more than I wanted I went to the outskirts of the crowd where it seemed a little safer.  I did see a couple of people fall down in their enthusiasm to catch beans and balls and was glad I was out of the thick of it.  I still managed to catch 4 bags of beans.

Beans being thrown in to the crowd.

Here is a better look at the platform.  At this point they had a "kids only" bean catching and had roped off a smaller area for them so that they could catch beans and not get trampled by overly enthusiastic adults.

This is what the bags of beans look like.  I think the picture is supposed to be a little ogre.