Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas! (Belated)

I hope everybody has had a wonderful Christmas! I do apologize for my lack of activity of late, I have a few posts lined up but I must admit that I just haven't been doing much recently. At least not much that is all that blog worthy.

I have here a selection of photos from last years Christmas display at the Denver Botanical Gardens. There are a few illuminations around here in Japan, but I have yet to visit any!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nikko in Fall

This fall has been truly beautiful. While the past summer was baking hot, and in fact set a few records, October and November have been filled with clear and sunny days. Not too hot, not too cold.

Nearby Nikko, home of Toshogu Shrine that I visited in August, is famous across Japan as an autumn destination. The brilliant fall colors in the area draw people from all over the Kanto region.

This can certainly make for clogged roads and busy attractions, but luckily for us, most people access Nikko from the Tokyo side. The drive from my place to Nikko was easy and pleasant, with gorgeous views at every turn. I drove up with a trio of flatlanders, who really enjoyed the trip.

We met up with a few more friends from around the area in Nikko, though it took longer than expected due to brutal traffic through town. The shrines were as gorgeous as always, and the small garden near the entrance to Toshogu was a delight.

That is one thing I really love about Japanese cultural sites. No matter how many times you have been, and this marks my third trip to Nikko, there always seems to be something new to discover.

We then headed up into the hills, back to the Kegon falls. It was nice to arrive a little earlier this time, and get the chance to take the elevator down to the lower viewing platform. 

The geology nut in me loved that vantage point. We could see the bottom of a layer of columnar basalt, the same type of rock that formed the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. The meeting point between the basalt lava flows and the underlying rocks was very obvious, even in the fading light.

After a well deserved sit down and some dinner, we all went our separate ways, with the knowledge that the weekend had been properly seized.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


My area is served by the Jomo Electric Railway, a non Japan Rail local line that runs between Maebashi and the nearby city of Kiryu. The trains are small, old, and expensive to ride, but despite all that it has become my train system, and so I will defend it with all my heart.

              Despite not being JR, the Jomo line still maintains the Japanese reputation of punctuality. Though unfortunately the trains only run every half hour, so if my own punctuality is lacking it can be a bit of a pain waiting for the next train. Fairly often I will ride the train into Maebashi rather than drive, so I have amassed quite a few photos of Ogo Station.

             The line runs to Chuo-Maebashi station, which is a kilometer walk from the main JR station. There is a shuttle bus that connects the two for a mere 100 yen, but usually I like to walk it. It's fast enough, and as long as it isn't raining it can be rather pleasant.

              Ogo also marks the location of the service and repair yard for the whole line. A couple of weekends ago they held an open house where people could walk around the yard and the maintenance shed. The event was free, but there were souvenirs and food for sale, and I am sure they were hoping that people would ride the train in to see the sights.

              They have a few restored older train cars that are trotted out for special occasions. Sometimes they will even make the run into Maebashi. I haven’t had that opportunity yet, but it was still kind of fun to get up close and check them out. Though even the regular line trains are antiques of a sort, they date from the 1960s!

              It was nice having an activity going on in Ogo, it often seems that I have to leave my area to do much of interest, and I was happy to be proved wrong for a weekend.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Festivals Both Sporty and Cultural

In Japan festivals aren’t limited solely to religious celebrations; every school also has a few festivals of their own throughout the year. In September every school has a Sports Festival. The basic idea is like the American Field Day, with races and fun sporty activities for the kids. However, the sports festival is a much bigger deal here. The schools practice for weeks ahead of time. Classes are canceled in the afternoon while the kids practice every aspect of every activity.

When the day comes, there are opening and closing ceremonies with speeches, and more. One of my schools even had food vendors set up in the parking lot! At the elementary schools the marching band took the field after lunch for a quick display for the assembled parents and siblings. Being September, and being that we were coming off a blisteringly hot summer, I didn’t envy those kids tromping through the sunny field in their full dress uniforms. 

In addition to the old field day standards like the relay race, they have more unusual events like whole class jump rope. One of my favorites was a team event where four kids would support one on their shoulders. The top kid would have a hat on, and their job was to collect the hats of the other teams, without surrendering their own hat. It was fun to watch and looked fun to play too!

The other, more recent, festival was the Culture Festival. Each school does something different for their Culture Festival. My junior high school set it up so each class (there are 7) wrote and performed a play. Each play was about 20 minutes, and they were wildly different.

One involved a young girl who gets a bad grade on her test, and commits suicide. She doesn’t die right away though, and has time to regret her choice. At the end though, she died anyway. It was beautiful and grim all at once, and absolutely fantastic even if you don’t consider it was written and performed by 13 year olds. Another featured a love story set in the turmoil of the Meiji Era, and climaxed with a sword fight vs the Shinsengumi.

While a lot of the more intricate plot details escaped me, my Japanese listening needs a lot of work, I still had a great time watching my kids give these plays their all. After the lunch break there was an interlude of traditional dances from a local dance troupe. That was followed by a musical presentation by some of the students. The elementary school students came in around then, in time to watch the last two plays. Some of them spotted me sitting in front and I could here whispers of "look, its Grant-sensei!" behind me. Like any proper movie star, I looked back and waved at my adoring fans.

              Both festivals were a lot of fun, a way to really experience some of the differences between growing up in America, and growing up in Japan.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Almost Autumn Myōgi-san

A couple of weeks ago a large contingent of locals headed to Mt. Myogi for a hike and some fall colors. Alas for our group, the fall colors didn't show up. The abnormally hot summer, one of the hottest on record, has pushed the changing of the leaves back a few weeks.

Our very large group.
We ended up splitting up naturally as we hiked along. Most of the group ended up taking the chain route that scared my pants off last time I went on Myogi. Lauren and I and a few other wise souls decided to take the short cut that avoided the steep chain area.

Luckily for all involved, the weather was fantastic. We had come off of a couple of weeks of pretty steady rain, but our day dawned bright and sunny, warm enough not to freeze but cool enough that nobody melted into a puddle.

One of these days I'd like to go back to Myogi on a really clear day, I imagine the view would be tremendous. The view is pretty good anyway, but the haze can really get in the way.

I felt pretty good once we got to the bottom, even though we actually hiked quite a bit further than last time. However, there had been one section of narrow, steep stairs that came back to haunt me the next day. Luckily, misery loves company, and I know I wasn't the only one to feel the complaints of disused muscles.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Night falls on the Kawagoe Matsuri

As we reached the furthest area of the festival, dusk was fully upon us. Of course, in a Japanese festival, night time isn’t an excuse to go home and have a quiet dinner, but rather a time to hang out the lanterns, light up the streets and keep partying!

The floats had been pretty impressive in the daylight hours, but bedecked with lanterns and lights they were even more so. At first the daytime crowds seemed to thin a bit, but that was an artifact of our location at the fringes of the action. As we headed back towards the central streets, things got even busier and more packed than they had been. 

At each major intersection a troupe of acrobatic old fashioned firemen did a performance. They would lift a ladder far above the crowds, and then members would climb up and do tricks high above our heads. Their skills were impressive, and a large crowd gathered around. A very large crowd. As the performance ended, we had to all hold on to each other to make sure we weren’t separated as we ploughed through the teeming horde of people.

Things got so busy that we eventually took to a side street to avoid the crowds. While we did miss the bright festival booths in that area, by this point each of us had overindulged in festival food, and weren’t in a mood to do much more buying. We were in the mood to sit down and relax, and to sing. Once we found a good karaoke booth, we stayed for three hours of badly belted melodies and draft beer. It was a perfect end to a great day.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Daylight Kawagoe Matsuri

Last weekend I met up with some friends from around the area to go to the Kawagoe festival and celebrate my friend Peter's birthday.One of the first things we ran into was a mikoshi headed out of a shrine. This is very like the one I helped carry at the Maebashi Matsuri the week before. I'm glad they didn't try to press me into action again, as my shoulder was still a little sore from the last one.

One of the best reasons to go to a festival has to be festival food. The mingled smells of a street or courtyard full of food stalls is sure to set your stomach to grumbling. From yakitori to okonomiyaki to ramen burgers to fried twisty potatoes to doner kebab, just about anything is available and it all tastes great.

The festival is a popular one, and one of the largest I've seen. The food stalls, toy booths and fairground games of chance stretched from the station to the old town, and filled the grounds of every shrine and temple in between. The whole stretch was jammed with plenty of festival goers, though during the day the crowd wasn't too bad to elbow through.

Along the way there were large floats with dancing, drums, flutes and more.

Though not everybody on the floats seemed to be totally enthused to be there. 
Like the portable shrines, the floats are all human powered. Luckily, they have wheels so there is probably less of a chance of a painfully bruised shoulder. 

As we snacked our way from one end of the festival to the other the sun went down, and the festival geared up for the night...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Careening down the Canyons

Some weeks ago I had a chance to go Canyoning with a group of local
English teachers. Canyoning is a newish sport that involves, well,
traveling through a canyon by any means necessary. In the States it is
more of a solo adventure, involving technical rock climbing and
rappelling. But our trip was a group trip, led by a seasoned Kiwi
guide. He had been guiding various adventure sports all around the
world for almost ten years. He had meant to stop off in Japan for a
season while heading home from Europe, but that one season had turned
into something like four years!

We had traveled into the mountains in the far northern corner of
Gunma, to the resort town of Minakami. Minakami is a popular place
year round, with canyoning, bungee jumping, rafting and more during
the summer months and plenty of skiing come winter.

The first stop upon arrival was to get geared up. One wetsuit, helmet,
and rock proof seat guard later we were ready to get wet. The trip
started out easily enough, floating down stream dodging the occasional
rock. It was relaxing and fun, the perfect way to lull the group into
a false sense of complacency. We came to a few small waterfalls and
slid down them like we were at natures own waterpark. As a devoted
lover of Colorados giant Water World waterpark, I loved the natural
waterslide effect.

Then we came to the big one. A 20 meter waterfall blocked our path,
the only way through was to jump and ride it down. The guide had a
rope set up to lower us into the stream and let the water, and
gravity, carry us into the deep pool at the bottom. He could either
let us go near the top, or at the midway point for those a little
worried about the heights involved.

I have no shame in admitting I went for the halfway point drop.
Standing twenty meters above my friends and cohorts, the distances
involved certainly made me a little weak kneed. Its funny, I really
don’t have much fear of heights. I will clamber and scramble on rocks
all day long, and I eat tall buildings and observation towers for
breakfast. But I do fear falling, hence a general distaste of roller
coasters and rock climbing and any other situation where I face
exposure. This sort of drop was almost too much for me, though once I
was down I must admit the thrill of death and dismemberment was
remarkably fun. In an oh God Oh God OH GOD sort of way.

       The rest of the trip wasn’t nearly as terrifying, and the many falls
and currents were amazingly fun to navigate. At the very end we had a
chance to jump off a small cliff into a deep pool. To make up for my
weakness earlier I clambered up to get in line. All was well till it
was time to make the jump. From below it seemed so easy watching my
cohorts doing back flips off the ledge.. Standing up there looking
down was another thing entirely. Leaping into space like that took me
to and beyond my comfort limit, but I did it anyway! Not only that,
but I did it twice! It was almost excessively exhilarating, and a
perfect way to end the trip. We all trooped back to the bus in high
spirits, ready for a big lunch.

All canyoning photos credited to my new friend Allen Bo Agundy and his borrowed waterproof camera.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Maebashi Matsuri

I apologize that I haven't updated in a while. I've beat off two successive colds over the past two weeks, and so I haven't really done much that is blog worthy over the past couple of weeks.

Until today that is.

The Maebashi Matsuri is THE major festival for the city. The weather was gorgeous, so rather than take the train into town, I rode my bike. It was a long ride, but it felt great to get out and about. Sadly, my camera didn't have a memory card, so I didn't get any photos of the festival at all.

Things kicked off with a dance ceremony. The very first group to take the stage were a series of young girls doing cheerleader dance routines set to American pop music. I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that here we are kicking off an event with great cultural and even religious import with kids dancing to Avril Lavigne. Though I have to say that the kids did a great job, they really knew their stuff. Later groups were a bit more traditional, including one that used two huge flags to backstop their performance. These flags were so large that the poles were in danger of hitting the powerlines, and sometimes did! I could see the flag bearers working harder than the dancers to keep them flapping, and the effect was very impressive.

Next on the schedule was the reason I came, the elementary school marching band parade. Now I know a lot of readers probably did a bit of a double take, I'm well known for a general dislike of parades and marching bands. However, all that changes when it is YOUR kids doing the marching. And while I may only see these kids once a week, they are still my kids. It was great seeing them all spiffy in their uniforms, and I think they got a kick out of seeing "English Teacher" on the sidelines. After the parade, I walked over to the ending area to say hi to the kids and the teachers. My kids know me well, their first question was, "Are you hungry?"

Being that I was a little hungry, I headed back into the maelstrom to see what I could find to eat. While I was perusing the plentiful purveyors of festival food I came upon an all female taiko troupe doing a performance. I love taiko drumming, and throw in a group of gorgeous 20 something women and I really love taiko. It doesn't hurt that they were very good at what they did. The performance banished all thought of food from my mind, at least until it was over.

As people were filtering away from the area a new call went up, a mikoshi was coming through. Mikoshi are portable Shinto shrines, and are often a part of festivals. I had seen a few tromping about, but this one was coming right up the middle of the pedestrian mall, pushing the crowd out to the sides as it came. I watched them pass and thought to myself that it looked like the mikoshi was very heavy, the bearers were working hard to keep it moving. As they were almost by me an elderly gentleman came up and asked if I wanted to wear his happi, a sort of coat that all the bearers wear, and help carry? I jumped at the chance, and soon found out that yes, the shrine was indeed very heavy. Brutally so. Painfully so. Still, it was amazing, trying to chant, carry, and move simultaneously without falling into a heap. Definitely a highlight of the festival.

From there, exhausted I made my way over to a karaage (fried chicken) stand where I finally got something for lunch. I can say for certain that the festival was amazing, and really just the Japan only sort of shot in the arm I needed this month.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Play Ball!

A couple of weeks ago I finally had the chance to catch a Japanese baseball game. The 'home' team was the Saitama Seibu Lions, from the prefecture next door. They played the Osaka Orix Buffaloes, which was the team we ended up rooting for. Entering the stadium, we got to choose which teams 'section' to sit in. I picked the Buffaloes because there were more open seats, so we could sit closer to the field. The Lions took an early lead, and so the American love of the underdog came out and we ended up cheering pretty hard for the boys from Osaka.

They must have heard us, because despite some horrible baseball on their part in the early part of the game, they came back and ended up winning 8 to 4. I really enjoyed my first trip to a baseball game in Japan. The smaller field made for a much more intimate game. The fans were so much quieter and nicer than at the last American game I saw. Though there were 'cheap seat' cheering sections for each team, each with their own band ready to strike up the team fight song!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


A few weeks ago we did a poetry lesson for the third year junior high school students. The idea was to come up with a nice short English language poem. The only direction was to start with one word, then two words, three, four and finally one last word to summarize. The two classes were both right before lunch, so I had a lot of fun just brainstorming up mostly food related example poems. Later on when I went through the student's efforts I saw some excellent work, and I decided they deserved a blog post.   

My Poems

So high
Hiking, climbing, resting
I’m on the top

Smells good
Round, greasy, cheesy
I want it now

Hiroshima? Osaka?
I cook it
Lots of sauce now

From America
Beef, Bacon, Cheese
Let’s grill it outside

Pounded rice
It’s so chewy
Goes well with ice-cream

So happy
I can eat
Oh no, its seafood

Students Poems

What’s this?
Sad, busy, tired
Take me far away

Moon Crying
Umbrella, raincoat, boots
But, I don’t use

Very Cute
White, round, good
Eating it makes smile

Mother say
Study Study Study
I don’t like studying

Very cold
Lake river sea
The water is smiling

Many colors
Green, yellow, red
It changes by a season

Sky light
Big, shining quietly
It is very big face

Todays feelings
Snow, cloudy, rainy?
How is the weather?

Sunny, rainy, cloudy
Blue sky
The sky is smiling
So beautiful

Very big
Blue, wide, beautiful
I want to swim
To far-off!

So delicious
Chocorates, cookies cakes
I like ice creams

Very fun
Friends, teachers, basketball
It is happy time

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


In the middle of Nagano Prefecture, near Matsumoto and its famous castle, there exists a dream come true for wasabi lovers. The Daio Wasabi Farm is set in a broad valley among the high Japanese Alps, and is the perfect combination of scenery and flavor. To get there, you rent a bike at Hotaka station, and ride a couple of kilometers through rice paddies and corn fields.

We started our visit at the restaurant, with a very wasabi lunch. My meal consisted of wasabi juice and a wasabi croquette, and both were excellent. The green monstrosity you see above was a wasabi beer ordered by Ryan. While this may not catch on for St. Patrick's Day back Stateside, it was actually far more delicious than you might expect. The wasabi flavor was very subtle, but was certainly present. The beer was in fact just a bit spicy, and went down perfectly with a side of wasabi peas.

The farm itself is quite a sight to see. Wasabi must be grown in a rocky stream bed of fresh, flowing water. The plants are also temperature sensitive, hence the black shade coverings.

We got to dip our feet in the water, and I took the opportunity to get a shot under the canopy. The water was chill, and very refreshing. However, I can't imagine what will grow downstream of anywhere my feet have been.

Once you are done exploring the paths among and above the spicy little roots, well there is only one thing left to do...

... and that is to have some Wasabi ice cream!

This was actually my second trip to the farm, but I had just as much fun as the first time. It really is a little seen gem of Japan, though I can understand why. Nagano Prefecture is a bit off the Tokyo to Kyoto to maybe Nara or Hiroshima tourist path. Getting to the farm from anywhere that isn't Matsumoto or Nagano City will take a few hours, and would anybody on a ten day trip really want to devote a whole day to wasabi? That said, for anybody who has the time or is in the area, it's a uniquely Japanese experience that doesn't involve a shrine, temple, or skyscraper.