Monday, June 27, 2011

Well I didn't expect...

You can't plan an adventure, but you can make the best use of one when it arrives. Our original intent after stopping in Matsumoto had been to head back to Gunma. It would be a long drive, but we'd save money on hotel. As the day wore on Travis the driver became less and less enamored of that option. Having served in his role myself, I fully understood his desire to stop moving for the night, so we headed to Nagano city, home to the famous temple of Zenko-ji.

I had stayed at a nice youth hostel near Zenko-ji a year before, so we figured to try there first. The hostel itself is in an old temple, and the lady who runs it doesn't speak a lick of English. Though she may be the nicest hosteler I've ever encountered. When she found out we were residents of Japan, she dropped the no reservations charge, and then threw in free parking just for fun.

The next stop was dinner, which we found at a local soba place that came highly recommended. It figures that they were out of soba, but my sukiyaki udon was still pretty amazing. 

Like Gunma, Nagano Prefecture is known for its hot springs, and within a moderate jaunt of the hostel is a primo resort. Indoor and outdoor baths, saunas, steam rooms and more. It really is just the thing to relax a body after a long hard days travel. Though en-route we happened upon a passage, a tunnel with paper lanterns that just seemed to go somewhere interesting

So of course we walked down it! At the end, like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, we found a sake brewery. Because of course that is what you find at the end of strange passageways.

All good sake breweries have to have tastings available, and Travis, Peter and I surely took them up on that. Of course, they ply you with free booze so that you'll be more likely to buy the non-free booze. It works like a charm every time.

Freshly ladened with our freshly brewed nihonshu we made it to the hot springs without any further damage to our wallets. Back at the hostel post soak, we were ready to tuck into our bottles with gusto when the proprietor noticed the logo on our bags. Rather than forbid us from drinking in the rooms, she dished out a bottle of the same company from her own stock, as well as some home made plum wine. In fact, she kept bringing out new things to drink and sample even after we had drunk our fill. Nobody expects an adventure, but nonetheless, sometimes you find one.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Green Lunch, Black Castle


  After spending so much time moving and dodging aftershocks, I knew I wanted to get out of Gunma for Spring Break. Even a few days away can be quite the restorative, and time with friends is never wasted so when Travis proposed a road trip in Nagano I took him up on the offer. 

     Our first stop was the Daio Wasabi Farm. Despite having lived in Japan for almost five years, Travis had never been. The weather hazier than I would have liked. On clear days the Japan Alps loom over the rows of spicy veggies, but our view was much less majestic. Luckily, the fresh ground wasabi on my cutlet was still pretty majestic!

     The sensible double bill with the wasabi farm is Matsumoto castle. It is close by, beautiful, and one of the few remaining castles that escaped fire, war, earthquakes, the end of feudalism and the firebombings of WW II. I've been several times, but I never get sick of taking pictures of red bridge, moat and the lofty black ramparts.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Sakura, Sprinkles, and Sake

Cherry blossom season has always been one of my favorite times in Japan. Two weeks of sunny skies, warming weather and cherry trees covered in delicate flowers are enough to banish winter from any heart. This was my fourth chance to enjoy hanami (花見), the flower viewing festivals that sweep every city in Japan.

This year I joined a huge ALT party in the nearby city of Takasaki. Takasaki is actually the largest city in Gunma, and has a much more vibrant city center than Maebashi, even though the latter is the prefectural capital. (Years ago, Takasaki got the shinkansen stop and Maebashi didn't, and that quick link to Tokyo has made its effects known economically.)

Despite a rather dismal weather forecast and lingering doubts about how much we should celebrate in the face of the recent earthquake, our group gathered near the site of old Takasaki castle and settled down to the serious business of enjoying the flowers, and our snack and alcohol selections.

We did have some light rain, but nothing to damp the festivities too much. There had been some discussion of Karaoke, but in the end most people departed after dinner at the local Garlic Restaurant. When you start drinking at 1 PM, its hard to stay out much past 6 or 7!