Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Back in Canada

Hi, we're no longer in Japan. We've moved back to Canada and are busy graduate students. Hope you enjoyed reading about our life in Japan and the various things we experienced. We hope that our posts will encourage you to apply to the JET Programme or visit Japan. Get out to the mountains and hike! You'll discover friendly people and a lovely country.

*No more updates to this blog, but our Flickr account will remain active.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Climbing Fuji-san

We had planned on visiting Fuji and possibly climbing it since we came to Japan nearly three years ago, but it wasn't until this July that we actually got around to getting up to Tokyo to do so. We decided to start our hike on July 1st when the official climbing season opened and the bus service would be more frequent. We were lucky enough to get a bus right to Kawaguchi-ko-guchi Go-gome (5th station) 河口湖、口五合目 from the Shinjuku bus terminal. This site, gives a pretty good description of the hike and what to prepare for if you're interested. One thing to note is that the English phone number was no longer valid and you would need to call 0555-72-5111 to make a reservation (in Japanese). In early July there were two buses a day leaving from the Shinjuku west gate, one at 10:55-->13:20, and the other at 16:50-->19:15. However, there are more frequent buses after July 16th.

Arriving at 7:15PM we decided to kill some time before the hike because even in July, Fuji is cold (we each wore a longsleeve t-shirt, wool sweater, polar-fleece, and rain jacket and were very, very cold) and we wouldn't want to be waiting at the top for the sunrise. So after eating "dinner" and snacks we hit the trail at 10PM with our flashlights. Unfortunately, just as we left the 5th station it started to pour but we decided to carry on; after all, we had come this far. Eden's little Petzel head lamp was barely adequate and my big 4, D-cell flashlight was really necessary to stay on the path. Otherwise we would've had to go at half the speed. After reaching the 7th station it became obvious that we were climbing too fast, we would freeze at the summit for around two hours waiting for the sunrise. We decided to slow our pace and make frequent stops at the many shelters between the 7th and 9th stations. About an eight minute break was enough to rest before we got to cold and had to carry on. Many hikers climbing Fuji overnight also fall ill to altitude sickness, so we made sure to breathe oxygen (from our can) at these frequent stops. Not really sure if it helped, but I was feeling ill on the way up. At around 2AM we were a mere 50 minutes from the summit and decided to rest in a hut and buy some hot cocoa. We dragged it out and then made it back to the path to reach the summit at our planned time of 4:30AM. We arrived slightly early and sat freezing at the summit watching the sunrise. Due to the rain the previous night the clouds and smog cleared and we were given an amazing sunrise. Although we were cold and wet, it made up for it.

Fuji sunrise

After visiting a hut at the summit for some more hot cocoa we began our decent down the Gotemba-guchi-tozando 御殿場口登山道. This route is the longest back, but Lonely Planet's Hiking in Japan gave it a stellar recommendation, so we decided to take it. The path down was quite easy, and for about half the way down the trail is soft volcanic sand. This allows you to run as fast as you dare and at times almost felt like downhill skiing; just pick up your feet and fall. In the last year a number of the huts along the Gotemba route have collapsed and we were a little frustrated to learn at the 5th station that the hourly buses had since been replaced with a twice daily bus service! At 12pm and 3pm. (Shouldn't this be marked at the start of the path at the summit??) We reached the 5th station at around 9am, and were exhausted. We didn't feel like waiting for three hours for a bus. Luckily, we met another hiker who shared our fate and with his help the three of us were able to hitch-hike to the train station for the ride back to Shinjuku.

Descending down the Sunabashiri (sand-run) on Fuji

Friday, July 08, 2005


Two weeks ago we decided to visit a family bath in the Aso region of Kumamoto. Usually when we visit a hot spring, we’re separated and spend most of the time chatting to wrinkly old people who want to know where we’re from, why we came to Japan and so on.

Family bath in Aso

We chose a place in Oguni town Yuuka kazoku-furo 裕花 家族風呂 which has 14 baths made of stone, cut stone, and Japanese cypress. The best things about family baths are the privacy, quietness, and fresh bath water. Our bath and accompanying room was lovely. The only drawback of these baths is the time limit of 50 minutes which can seem just a tad short by the time the bath fills and you wash up. I suppose you could pay for two sessions though. If you're ever in Kumamoto, I highly recommend the Yuuka family baths.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Taue 田植え– Rice Planting

For the past two years Eden and I have been going to a rural region of Kumamoto City to participate in traditional Japanese activities. It is part of the internationalization part of our JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme experience. Last week we got to help plant rice. In China the farmers toss the rice seedlings into the mud while standing erect (much easier on the back). But in Japan it isn’t good enough to have rice growing this way or that, each seedling must be placed in neat, evenly spaced rows.

The two small flooded, muddy fields we planted we’re alive with leeches, larvae and frogs. It wasn’t the easiest thing to ease into, but luckily the leeches didn’t bite. All in all I’m not sure if it’s something that I’d choose to do again but am glad that we did it once. The poor old men and women who’ve done this there entire lives are bent over with their backs nearly horizontal, partly due to the hard work and I think partly due to a lack of calcium (traditionally Japanese people don’t consume dairy products, they get all their calcium from fish bones).

Monday, June 20, 2005

Need for speed

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I was caught speeding. On my commute home from school it is impossible to go faster than the limit of 40 or 50 kph in all but one place, and that’s just where I was caught. For most of my drive the roads are too narrow, windy, crowded or have too many stops to touch above 50 kph for more than a few seconds, but traffic clears up nicely when the road crosses the river and follows an overpass avoiding the intersection below. On this particular section, 50 kph seems like a crawl and everyone pushes their car to at least 60 kph. As I was descending the overpass, picking up a little speed, two men ran in front of my car waving large red flags. Not expecting someone to dash in front of a speeding car, I slammed on my brakes and swerved to avoid them. They then gestured for me to pull over and asked if I was in a hurry because I was speeding. I always think it’s unfair to point the radar gun at people descending a hill or something, but considering I was driving 76 kph in a 50 kph zone, I had little excuse. What really did irk me was the stiffness of the fine, 18,000 yen or around $220 CDN, and the fact that people don’t get in trouble for running red lights or watching TV while driving; two very common driving habits in Japan that I would consider much more dangerous.

I suppose though that the fine did serve its purpose. It has made me slow down to the speed limit (or just a little over) and I suppose this makes things safer for myself and the public.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hita, land of clogs 日田、下駄の国

This weekend we drove up to Hita in Oita prefecture (70 km north of Kumamoto City) with two purposes in mind. The first was to stroll down Hita’s scenic old streets and the second was to find clogs. Hita produces more wooden clogs or geta than any other place in Japan, and I’m very particular when it comes to certain things. Thus, it seemed that to find a clog that I’d be happy with, a trip to Hita would be necessary. (Eden also wanted to pick up a pair of geta, but going to the source to find them wasn’t really necessary in her case.)

Hita market 日田市場

North of Hita station is an area called "Mameda" 豆田. It has been kept quite traditional with a number of nice, well-worn, old buildings. Having visited Uchiko内子, in Shikoku the week before, Hita seemed a little less special, but it does have the finest old street I have found in Kyushu. (Yanagawa 柳川and its canals are just as pleasant, but there are fewer old buildings.)

On my search for the ideal geta I found a few interesting pair. One was a duel support stilt geta which would make me about five inches taller. Another was a single support stilt geta which would prove rather difficult to walk in. The third interesting pair had a very round arch, almost semicircular. At last, I did find a pair which appealed to me, (dark wood, wide, rectangular, dark strap and with a short, dual support so that the clog rocks when you walk) only to find out that they were just too small. Eden, who is less particular than me when it comes to geta was able to find a lovely pair for only 1100 yen, about $13 CND.

Currently listening to: Pearl Jam - Ten
Eden is reading: Cry, the Beloved Country - Alan Paton
Josh is reading: The Hanging Garden - Ian Rankin

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Highlights from Shikoku 四国のおすすめ

aving spent ten days travelling around
Shikoku this Golden Week, visiting three of the four prefectures, here are my recommendations in descending order:

1. Spend a night a Chiiori.
Chiiori If you have the time, and are able to make it to the somewhat remote Iya Valley 祖谷, I highly recommend spending a night or more at Chiiori. Chiiori is a traditional thatched-roof farm house near Miune-san 三嶺 in Higashi-Iya 東祖谷 village. It is maintained by a group of volunteers, and is more of a private residence or cooperative than a hotel. There are various work weekends throughout the year where you can help cut thatch for a new roof, help garden, or other work needed to keep the 300-year old structure standing. All guests sleep in the main hall on futons. Normally a Japanese house such as this would be partitioned into a few smaller rooms, but when Alex Kerr bought the place thirty years ago, he removed them to bring more sunlight into the rest of the house. Still, it is quite dark inside and adds to the romance of the place. Sitting around the hearth drinking tea, smoke billowing up to the rafters, rain and mist obscuring the trees and mountains was a wonderful experience.

2. Dogo onsen 道後温泉. Not the most relaxing bath in Japan, but perhaps the nicest bathhouse building. We decided to visit Dogo onsen around dinner time when the place should’ve been less busy but it was still packed. Shoulder to shoulder naked old men, hot, hot water. Along with Beppu別府 it is probably the most well known hot spring in Japan but unlike Dogo, Beppu spreads the tourists out over dozens of baths. The old, carved granite baths were impressive but more enjoyable was the tea, biscuits and atmosphere in the tatami room upstairs of the ‘kami no yu’ 神の湯, “Bath of the gods.”

3. Shin-Iya-Onsen, Kazura-bashi Hotel 新祖谷温泉 かずら橋ホテル. This lovely onsen has to rate as one of my favourites. It is newer than the other baths in the Iya Valley but it has been especially well done. On the third floor of the hotel are the indoor baths and sauna, but catch the lift up the side of the mountain to the rotenburo 露天風呂(outdoor baths) and teahouse. The mens’ and womens’ rotenburo have stellar views of the valley below. While we were there it was lightly raining and quite peaceful. Something surprising about this hotel is that it has a mixed bath or konyoku混浴. I believe that these are rather rare in Japan nowadays and only a few old ones exist in rural Oita, Kumamoto and Kagoshima. After our bath the three of us relaxed on the teahouse porch, soaked our feet in a foot bath and enjoyed the view. Later we went into the thatched roof teahouse for some complimentary tea. For 1,000 yen this bath was well worth it.

4. Oku-Iya Kazura-bashi (Vine Bridges)奥祖谷かずら橋.
Oku-Iya Kazura-bashiNo trip to the Iya Valley would be complete without visiting the vine bridges. We decided to visit the less touristed “fufu” husband and wife bridges on the way to Mount Tsurugi. The vines on the bridges are replaced every three years and are supported with steel cables. In the past the bridged were just made of vines and bamboo so that they could be easy to sever for the Heike warriors fleeing the Shogun’s army.

5. Iya-kei祖谷渓. The actual Iya gorge is deep, natural, and beautiful. However, due to the roads, houses, and other construction it lacks the mystical feeling apparent in Yakushima (especially in the early morning mist around Miyanoura-dake). It is easy to imagine how the area must have been, and how inaccessible it was when the Heike warriors fled here. Wild, isolated, lost Japan.

6. Hiking from Tsurugi-san剣山 to Miune-san 三嶺.
On the way to Miune-san - Bamboo grassTsurugi-san is a sacred mountain in Japan, where the Heike warriors buried their emperor’s sword after their defeat at Shimonoseki. With a chair lift up, the summit can be a little crowded, but most are day-trippers and the trail to Miune is relatively clear. The hike is quite easy in most parts and the trail is well marked in all but a few spots. Thick bamboo grass blankets many of the mountains, leaving only a thin, saw-tooth path leading off into the distance over the next peak. The Miune Hutte has been rebuilt since the Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan was published, and is quite nice but the toilets are not good. (The other mountain huts or yama-goya do not have outhouses at all.)

7. Shimanto-gawa 四万十川.
Submersible bridge 沈下橋The last free flowing river in Japan is something to see. We noticed a dam on one its tributaries and wondered if this distinction should stand. The river is only 196 km long, which makes it rather sad that it is the last free flowing river. As construction is the lifeblood of rural Japan, the river had a plethora of bridges, but no dams, diversions or straightenings so I guess that is ok. We camped along the upper reach of the river and had a brief swim. The area is quite popular for kayaking just downstream from where we camped. Coming from a place like Canada, the Shimanto was nothing special and what I found more interesting were the 22 submersible bridges. Most of the bridge decks were 3-5 metres above the water level, and I could imagine the smaller ones being submerged by a metre or so during typhoon season. One bridge we saw actually had a few sections washed away, which made me think of the forces acting upon it. A log jam in one of those bridges could be disastrous, but I imagine that the area is so thoroughly managed that this is not a problem. In North America, we’ve stopped removing large woody debris from rivers (to prevent jams) because we’ve realized that they contribute to the morphology of rivers, creating deep, cool pools, and providing shade and shelter for fish.

8. Uchiko 内子.
Uchiko streetThis small city in Ehime prefecture is a nice place to spend a few hours. The old merchant street with late Edo period buildings has been well preserved and it offers a look into what Japan used to be like.

Currently listening to: Pearl Jam - Ten
Eden is reading: Angels and Demons - Dan Brown
Josh is reading: The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

5.7 Magnitude Earthquake

A 5.7 magnitude earthquake struck Fukuoka this morning around 6am which woke Eden and I up. Fukuoka is around 100km north of us but the quake was quite mild in Kumamoto. It was enough to wake us up, but nothing fell over. (AND I had stacked five packs of ramen noodles on top of our kitchen cabinet last night and they didn't fall).

The Boston Globe carries an article about it. It occured in the same spot as the earthquake a month ago.

Shikoku Golden Week

This year the wonderful holiday period known as Golden Week ゴールデンウィーク will actually run for an entire week! On May 3rd, 4th, and 5th Japan celebrates three consecutive national holidays (Constitution Day, National Holiday, and Children's Day). Two years ago we had a Golden Weekend. May 3rd was a Saturday, May 4th a Sunday, and only May 5th was off :( This year we will take two days of paid leave (May 2nd and 6th) and combine it with another national holiday, Green Day (April 29th), and have an incredible ten days off! For these magical ten days we're planning our longest Japanese road trip ever; to the island of Shikoku.

Our plans are pretty much to see, eat, drink, bathe, and hike as much of Shikoku as we can. Hope we don't wear Krista Glen (Eden's friend) out (she's visiting for 2 weeks). Next Friday, April 29th, Eden, Krista, and I will pile into our little Suzuki 650 c.c. kei-car and drive to the east coast of Kyushu and the lovely? port of Saganoseki 佐賀関 to board our ferry for Misaki 三崎, Shikoku. This was the quickest and cheapest ferry between Kyushu and Shikoku, which I believe makes it the best option. From Misaki we plan on driving up to Uchiko 内子 and visit the local candle-stick merchants. Uchiko is famous for having one preserved old street, which I'll have to see how long it takes before we see a vending machine. After Uchiko we'll head to Matsuyama 松山 and the Dogo-onsen youth hostel. Dogo-onsen 道後温泉 has a history of 3,000 years and is the oldest hotspring resort in Japan so I look forward to seeing if it measures up to the waters in Kumamoto and Oita.

After doing our thing in Matsuyama we'll be driving to the famed Iya Valley祖谷which boasts deep gorges, vine suspension bridges, and roads to nowhere. I'm hoping to walk across some of the less visited vine bridges and have picked up a hiking map of the area which appears to have them labeled. After our first day of wandering around, eating soba noodles, and relaxing in onsens we'll camp at one of the excellent 500 yen sites along the river. The following day, May 1st we'll be staying at Chiiori, the 300-year old thatched roof farm house owned by Alex Kerr (author of Dogs and Demons, and Lost Japan {I've read both b.t.w.}) and Florence Mason (of Lonely Planet fame). The house/project is a non-profit organization that aims to "revive and preserve Japan's vanishing culture, arts, traditional lifestyle and natural environment, while promoting responsible and sustainable moderization." It seems like a cool place to stay and is quite well known in the JET community.

After our day at Chiiori we will start our three day hike. The first day we'll climb up Tsurugi-san剣山 and camp near the summit. The following day we'll make our way to Miune-san 三嶺山, described as the most beautiful mountain in the area, and camp around there. The third day we'll hike down to the road and then catch a bus to our car. That day we'll drive to either Tokushima or Takamatsu and spend our last night with Krista before we send her off to Kyoto, where she'll spend two days before heading back to Toronto.

From May 5th - 8th Eden and I don't have any solid plans. One route is to follow the inland sea back to Misaki (it's supposed to be lovely), and the other route is to head down to the Pacific coast and Kochi prefecture and do some beach camping and then going to the Shimanto-gawa 四万十川 and camp along it. It is famous for being the last/longest undamned river in Japan but at 196km it isn't *that* long. Particularly interesting are the 22 bridges along the river which don't have any side rails and are designed to submerge when the river swells!

So it looks like this will be our last major trip in Japan, which is a bit sad, but we're also looking forward to it and am sure we'll have a great time.

Currently listening to: Pearl Jam - Ten
Eden is reading: Devices and Desires - P.D. James
Josh is reading: Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks (I'm a slow reader)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Mom and Dad come to Japan

I was surprised to hear a month ago that my parents would be coming to Japan to visit. They had talked about it, but with Dad's work and Janine's wedding coming up in August I wasn't sure if they could make it. They arrived in Tokyo on March 23rd and spent a day and a half walking around, riding the subway, drinking expensive coffee (Starbucks in Japan is cheaper than at other shops) and filling up on ramen noodles.

Then on Friday, March 25th they caught their plane to Kumamoto. Having not seen each other in 2.5 years it was nice to talk over tea and cards nearly every night. We saw the usual sights around Kumamoto: Aso National Park (active volcanoe), Kumamoto Castle, Suizenji Park (Japanese garden and tea house), Hosogawa Mansion (House of the feudal lords of Kumamoto), a number of temples and we spent one day touring the canals of Yanagawa by boat.

Mom also bought a digital camera, a Sony DSC-W1 5.1MegaPixels, for a bargain $230 CND which we used to photograph and film Dad eating as well as take regular tourist snapshots. Some of Mom's video clips are quite funny, you'll have to ask her to show them to you.

Perhaps the funniest part of the trip was Mom's insistence on having sushi. Eden wasn't really interested and Dad and I were indifferent. Being accustomed to California rolls and similar tame sushi, Mom was a little surprised to see that most shops only served raw fish on cold rice. On their last night, April 2nd, we decided that we must finally bring Mom out for sushi and we went to the local kaiten rotating sushi bar. For around $18 CND the three of us (Eden was ill) ate around 13 plates of various items. It was quite tasty and it was a good experience. Mom seemed to stick to the safe bets of California rolls and prawns while Dad kept choosing "something exotic" and teasing Mom for picking "things you can get at home." One dish that we found quite good were fish eggs that had been laid on a blade of sea grass.

Other interesting things that we ate were grilled eel when we went to Yanagawa and ramen made with water from the Shirakawa river fountain head. (Water bubbles up from the ground there at 1000 l/second or about 60 tonnes a minute!)

What surprised Dad the most were the prices. He came to Japan expecting $10 hamburgers, $200 hotels and $5 coffees. He was quite amazed to find a good filling lunch for between $7-10 CND. At one restaurant in particular, Chikyu-ya in Kumamoto City, we ordered four sets of the fried chicken lunch and had so much left over chicken that we had it for two meals after. The total bill was less than $40 CND for the four of us.

On April 24th, Eden's best friend will visit us for two weeks. During Golden Week, April 29th - May 8th we will visit the island of Shikoku, hike in the Iya Valley and stay at Chiiori, a 300-year old traditional thatched roof farm house!

Currently listening to: Tracy Chapman - self-titled
Eden is reading: The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
Josh is reading: Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

Eden and I at Kumamoto Castle. Check out the beard!