Gotemba, Yokohama, and Kamakura

Back in Japan!

明けましておめでとう means happy new year, and it has definitely been a happy new year thus far. My friends in Tokyo that I usually meet once or twice a year invited me to join them at their friend’s family home in Gotemba, Shizuoka prefecture for New Year’s. To be fair, I asked them for recommendations on what to do for New Year’s secretly hoping they would invite me somewhere awesome. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but we caught a coach bus for about an hour out of Tokyo with our friends (Kanako and Satoshi) and our host’s girlfriend (Yuka) who was kind enough for bring beer for the bus trip.

Our host, Ryuu-chan, is a photographer with a penchant for kimono’s. A male kimono is a looser, more drab version of the colourful female kimono that people are generally more familiar with, so Ryuu-chan looks like a samurai wielding a camera instead of a sword.

Ryuu-chan’s family home is a traditional style home with sliding doors that separate all the rooms. This style of home doesn’t have central heating, so a portable kerosene heater is used for any occupied rooms. To keep things extra toasty, and to allow for liberal chances of playing footsie, we all sat around a low table that has a built-in heater. This type of table is called a kotatsu.

That night, we went to a local shinto shrine to inform the shinto gods of our wishes for 2017 — bow-bow-clap-clap-bow. We were offered, and gladly accepted, warm sake, namazake, dried squid, and tiny salamis. For me, this was reminiscent of my first time in Myokokogen.

The next morning, I woke up and poked my head outside, and, boom, there’s mount Fuji. We arrived at night, so I hadn’t realized just how close we were to Mt Fuji. Needless to say the symmetrical snow cone that is Fuji-san was an inspirational scene for the first day of 2017.

Since my lovely girlfriend, Ms Gu, finished her culinary program and is currently awaiting a work visa, we were able to come together to the Myokokogen ski area. Also, since she was able to come, we decided to stay for the whole ski season. It’s been a slow start to the season snow-wise, but I’ve got my fingers crossed.

After departing Shizuoka prefecture, we went to Yokohama. There we visited the Cup Noodle Museum and the Ramen Museum. In general, it was a noodle-heavy experience. Next we went to Kamakura, which is a common day trip from Tokyo. Kamakura is a beach-town with lots of temples — you routinely see bikes with side-carriers for surfboards.

Catching up to present time, Ms Gu and I have been in Myokokogen since Thursday and are settling in nicely. Here’s hoping yuki-kami-sama (god of snow) hears our prayers — campai!

Shooting fireworks at Gwangalli Beach

On Gwangalli Beach in Busan, South Korea, old ladies sell fireworks on the beach. In Korea, old ladies are basically a separate class of citizen. They’re rough, tough, drive a hard bargain, and perennially have short permed hair. Usually wearing colourful hiking clothes, they will elbow passed you on the street and push you out of the way on the metro. They are called ajumma.

When I went looking for an ajumma to buy some fireworks on the beach, the first one who approached me offered 4 roman candles for $20 — a blatant rip off. Our new-found Korean friend from the hostel, Charlie, came over and started the process of serious negotiation. The ajumma was pretty pissed that her simpleton white-boy target suddenly had local backup. After we walked away from the negotiations, she came back to the table with an offer of 4 roman candles plus 4 bigger fireworks for the same price.

After we paid, the ajumma pulled the fireworks out of hiding spots in the sand. The fireworks were totally hidden, but she deftly plucked them from their shallow graves without having to search or shift at all. Perhaps the police have started cracking down on the practice as these precautions were new to me.

At night, Gwangalli is a very romantic spot. Strolling couples take selfies with the bridge lights shining off the water. On the boardwalk, young musicians perform acoustic sets for small crowds. Ironically, Charlie, who is from Seoul, said that the last time he was here he dumped his girlfriend. At least it’s a nice place to get dumped.

Hanoi, Saigon & Hoi An

The only time of day where it’s cool enough to do anything is 6am, so, in Hanoi, people gather around the small lake in the old town to work out. While the wide boulevard circling the lake serves as a 1/4-mile track for runners, the area is also spotted with congregations of old women practicing tai-chi with paper fans. However, in stark contrast to traditional tai-chi and far outnumbering the joggers are hundreds of middle-aged women doing some kind of Zumba in the adjacent square. They stand in grids doing fast-paced aerobics to techno, their arms outstretched and vigorously oscillating like a penguin trying different techniques to fly.

By mid-morning the traffic, which is 99% motorbikes, is in full swing and all the sidewalk cafes are packed with people drinking iced coffee or iced tea and sitting on toddler-sized wooden folding chairs that face out to the street. The traffic is memorizing. It’s a high-speed motorized version of people watching.

On one motorbike, a mother appears to be taking her two kids to school. The kids, in school uniforms, sit in front of their mother. The older child gets the front seat, as is his privilege, while the younger child remains squished between their sibling and mother. A large belt straps the three of them together (but not to the bike) keeping them safe or, at least, unifying their fate.

On another motorbike, a man is driving his sister or girlfriend to her office job. On the back of the bike, she is riding side-saddle, legs crossed in a knee-length skirt while she applies lipstick or checks her phone. She is wearing a helmet with a specialized hole on the back allowing her pony tail to protrude unobstructed.

For an Asian country, I was a surprised that people seem to leave work promptly at 5pm. Maybe that’s the benefit of communism? Either way, the sea of motorbikes rises again to high tide at quitting time as people leave work or pick up their children from school.

In the evenings, the sidewalks are packed with people enjoying glasses of beer. This time the furniture is toddler-size plastic chairs. As the beer isn’t refrigerated, a large pellet of ice is withdrawn from a camping cooler with tongs and added to the glass. Men cross the street to the grassy meridian to relieve themselves and then return to keep filling themselves up.

Back at the lake, the night air is cool, and people are exercising again. The evening is more mellow with ballroom or line dancing taking the place of Zumba.

 

Scotland in Two Weeks

I spent the last two weeks driving around Scotland with my good friend Alex. We met in London, picked up a blue Audi A3, and promptly got used to driving on the lefthand side while making our way to Edinburgh.

After a couple days in the architecturally stunning capital, we went further north to a small town called Inverness. Inver is Gaelic for river mouth and Ness is the name of the lake, as in Loch Ness (Lake Ness). The town is situated at the opening of the river which drains Loch Ness. We followed the bank of Loch Ness through the glens to a grimy little hostel near the southern end of the great Loch.

The next day we toured around the Isle of Skye — it was absolutely gorgeous geography with a million little peninsulas and beautiful mountains. We also visited our first distillery, Talisker.

Getting back to the mainland we took a rest day in Oban — a picturesque village if there ever was one — and, in a fun little hostel built into an old church, I received a detailed history lesson from an older man who must have been Connery’s twin. Aye!

What should have been a 2 hour ferry ride to the Isle of Islay (Whisky distillery central!) turned into a 12 hour epic due to a ferry breakdown (we had to drive to another town, catch a different ferry that took a longer route, etc), but when we got to the B&B at quarter pass midnight, the owner poured us a wee dram and all our problems became as resolved as the 110 proof liquor heating our bellies.

On the Isle of Islay (eye-lah), we visited 5 distilleries in 24 hours, and it… was… good! Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, Kilchoman, and Lagavulin. Side note: Scotch Whisky isn’t any cheaper at the source — there’s just bottles you can’t find in Canada.

To finish it off, we spent two days in Glasgow. Some people told me to skip Glasgow, but it was awesome. It’s more of a functioning city and less touristic than Edin-brah. We owe our great experience in Glasgow in no small part to Debbie (who I met in a hostel in Vienna a couple years back) and her partner Hamish — big thumbs up for random hostel friends. She took us to an open-mic night and wickedly hilarious comedy show with at least a dozen stand-ups.

Right, so, two days to go in London and then I’m back home!

Back in Japan…

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Well I’m back in Japan, and I have to say life is here pretty good. Mix equal parts of on-piste skiing, backcountry skiing, soaking in onsen, studying Japanese, and hanging out at Pontaro izakaya, and you have the recipe for my current day-to-day. The amazing experience I had here in Shin-Akakura last year brought me back for another season. It was such a great place to study Japanese and ski that I had to come back again, but this time only until March. It’s really a great situation for learning Japanese – I spend a couple hours studying in Hotel Moc and Sachiko helps me with any questions, and, in the evening, I’m exposed to, let’s say, various and interesting conversations at the izakaya (セクシーエアプロンだから)。

I have to admit that last year I felt pretty lost in learning Japanese; however, this time things are really starting to click. Last year I was adamantly against learning any kanji because I thought it was such a big hurdle and wanted to focus on conversation instead of reading/writing. However, I started studying kanji again this past December, and now I really like it. The strange thing with kanji (the Chinese characters) is that there are multiple readings (pronunciations) for each character. For example, you can see a word written and not really know how to pronounce it, but since the kanji have meaning you can understand the meaning of the word. The opposite is true for English, if you see a word for the first time, you can pronounce it but have no idea what it means. Anyways, the point is you can’t really read much with just katakana and hiragana, so the veil of illiteracy is slowing coming off. And that’s a great thing.

Small story: last year when travelling with James, we were discussing the personality type that tends to talk only about themselves and doesn’t ask questions about you – this was a pet peeve of James’ while I asserted that all you had to do was start talking about yourself without any inquiry. So James made the point that when you learn a language, the first thing you learn to say is how are you? In Japanese, you say genki? which means roughly are you lively? And indeed, this is the first thing you learn in Japanese. However, Japanese people almost never say this. You ask someone if they’re lively if you haven’t seen them in a long time, but it really isn’t a replacement for how are you? In fact, June-chan spent a good few minutes making fun of me for speaking like a Japanese textbook because I asked him everyday if he was genki.

Anyways, up at the top is an ice sculpture of the characters 雪酒場 (snow alcohol place) and somehow I got into the local paper.

またね。