Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hula Hula

Nami started hula lessons a few months ago, and took part in her second public performance last saturday at Hamanako Garden Park, near Hamamatsu city. Nami went with the other dancers in a coach from Shizuoka, I made my own way by Shinkansen, local train and taxi. The taxi driver was the highlight of my morning, a real chatty guy who asked me,

"Where are you from?"

"I'm from England."

"I love English people!"

I asked him about the local town, Bentenjima, and he told me that clams/cockles/muscles (not sure which!) are a local speciality. As we passed over a bridge on the way to the Garden Park we could see hundreds of people cockling in the low tide, reminded me of cockling in England or France as a kid. Didn't see anybody rocking on the wooden boards to tease them to the surface though, the Japanese prefer to dig with the hands it seems!

Hamanako Garden Park was very crowded, hot sunny weather on a Saturday had brought every man and his dog to this place, nice fields of grass, beautiful flowers, fountains for kids to jump in and ice cream (only chocolate unfortunately). The hula (and Tahitian dance, think hula crossed with belly dancing with coconut bikinis) was held on a covered, open air stage. See if you can spot the Nami...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Gunma trip part two

This is the Gunma trip crew, from left: Nami, Kiyo as a volcano demon, Me, Kazuo. This place, overlooked by Mt. Asama, was next on our way to Kusatsu after having picked up Kiyo. It was called "Oni oshidashi" which I shall nerdily translate as "ejected demon(s)". This area is strewn with volcanic rocks as large as a sumo wrestler. I found it interesting that some had smooth, curved surfaces, whereas other aspects were rough and bumpy through erosion or moss growth. I couldn't figure out why some were different, and rather than confuse everyone with another difficult question (I make them explain the meaning of every Japanese place name's kanji, which bores Nami silly) I kept my trap shut. Though I wished dad was there to give an answer!

A little difficult to see... the near rock has smooth surfaces, those in the background darker and rougher. Now presumably these arrived here as a result of an eruption, which one I'm not particularly sure. Differential cooling? Splitting after cooling? Anywho, the tourist company that operates this field of volcanic debris was obviously compelled to provide some defense for its patrons should another eruption shower the place again.

One of the half a dozen concrete shelters, all with the entrances perpendicular to the approach of one ton boulders flying from 4km away. Not sure I'd like to be around to test one of these babys out.

After Mt. Asama, we finally completed our trip and made it to Kusatsu, an onsen town famous for its public (free) baths and sulphur pit in the centre of town. We arrived at a ryoukan (Japanese Inn) and greeted those that had already arrived in a tatami room. I had my beer glass refilled about five times in the first ten minutes, and this only stopped because they found out I like sake and produced a "One Cup" for me to drink.

Kazuo's friends were all very friendly and everyone enjoyed meeting each other again. There were maybe six couples, half of which brought children, mostly about my age. After a few drinks we went for a look around the town, when we got back I tried to take a hot bath in the ryoukan's bath room, but it was scorching. I could only manage getting my calfs (calves? Is one for cows, one for legs? It's like dwarfs vs. dwarves...) in the water, and did not go further lest I become a lobster and impress everyone with my red skin again.

Dressed in loose Japanese bath clothes I then went and joined everyone for dinner. One of Kazuo's friends was very nice and started asking me lots of questions, and he enjoyed trying to speak in English. After lots of sushi (I got Nami's and Kiyo's and an extra plate from somewhere) and some super expensive sake someone had brought I was finished and retired like the old man I am to the room. The young'uns went for a walk around the town at night.

Nami taking this picture, Kiyo in the denim jacket. I don't know the name of anyone else here, such are my social skillz. Next day!

Up pretty early, everyone packed into cars we headed for the hills. We went up a mountain next to Kusatsu called Mt. Shirane. Of course I enquired of the meaning ("white root(s)" - Japanese only defines plurals by context so it can be hard to translate names where there is none), but in this case I found it more amusing to give my own meaning. "Shirane" is the phoneme of a rough form of the verb "to know" which I might translate as "I don't f***ing know". Again, a private joke which I didn't really wish to explain to the others! So in my head I had this whole story of a cartographer coming to the region and asking a local the name of that particular mountain and taking his gruff reply in earnest.

Anyhow, on the way up the twisting road, the photographer in Nami emerged as she shouted orders from the passenger seat to myself and Kiyo in the back.
"David! Left side... take picture! Kiyo! Kiyo! Right side!"

Frauline Direktor in action.

She is adorably genki here, perhaps the thin mountain air got to her. Up on the mountain it was about 2000m, and whilst the winter's snow had melted down in the town, it was still clinging on here, as were a few snowboarders who had organised a small event. But the main attraction of Mt. Shirane was a short hike and the beautiful scenery.

The crater or caldera at the top was really great to see, with a beautiful pool of turquoise water. My pictures for the trip pretty much stop here, but there is little else to tell. We left Kusatsu and stopped off again at Karuizawa on the way home. Driving home I thought Kazuo was trying to have an head on crash as he was fond of cutting corners and crossing the centre line at every possible opportunity. I can't complain though, he did a couple of marathon drives, and I was sorry I couldn't get my license in time to lend a hand, more on that next time.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Golden Week Living

In lieu of writing lengthy emails, I have reluctantly decided to start a blog, and even though this stems from some form of laziness on my part, perhaps some would say a general incompetence, I hope it is at least interesting and lets people know what's going on in Shizuoka.

Last week, from Sunday to Tuesday, was the optimistically named Golden Week; national holiday where everyone in Japan scrambles to go someplace other than their homes for a few days with the family. Kazuo keeps in touch with old rugby friends from his university days, and every two or three years meets up with them, this year they planned a get together in the famous onsen (hot spring) town of Kusatsu. Leaving at 3am on Sunday morning, Kazuo hoped to fool the hoards of travellers, which indeed he did. After a few hours of lolling my head with a slackened jaw, I woke up at the highest line Japan Rail has, overlooked by the famous Yatsugatake range...

We exchanged photographs in a very civilized manner. The name Yatsugatake, means "eight peaks", though this local map, much to Kazuo's amusement, apparently only recognises seven...

Getting closer to Kusatsu, we made a scheduled to stop off at the picturesque town of Karuizawa to pick up Kiyo, the second sister after Nami, who had taken the Shinkansen from Tokyo. Whilst waiting for her train to get in, since we had made such good time, we went for a short hike to see Shiraito no taki, a rather amazing mini waterfall, apparently the result of geothermal activity, but not as hot as a regular spring, only about 11 degrees. And I don't know whether to believe this or not, but I read the water that comes out of the falls fell as rain six years ago.

The mountain from whence this water came is Mt. Asama, an active volcano, who kindly spewed a cloud of sulphur for us to see and smell.

Then we went to see another waterfall, downstream from Shiraito no taki, called Ryuugaeshi. Walking through the forest to get there, first we came across this sign. Not sure if the bear has a birthmark, a cowboy mask or a Yogi bear style napkin, but he looks like a nice enough chap.

Further down the path, Kazuo told us bears had stripped the bark of these trees, and we could easily see some decent sized paw prints in the soft soil...

By this time, Nami was pretty scared, so much so she held my hand. This just made me even more nervous. Then we saw this Taco-boy tree (he has an octopus face, Nami said, "Oh, he looks like... you know." And I said, "Yeah! It's OOOO." But it turned out we got our wires totally crossed here. Who do you think he looks like?).

Anywho, despite Nami's drama and protesting ("I think we should go back to car. Yeah.") we unfortunately didn't see any bears, but made it to the second falls; not as approachable, but more genki (energetic) than the trickle before.

OK, it has taken me an inordinate amount of time to do this, so will be splitting up Golden Week. Next blog, Japanese health and safety (non-existent for those that don't know), Kusatsu, more sulphur and caldera action.