Thursday, July 28, 2011

Departures This Way...

The life of an English teacher in Japan sometimes seems to have even more violent ups and downs than might be the case in a more normal environment. One area of both opportunity and loss is the revolving door of friendship. I have found that living overseas tends to attract some truely amazing people, and many of my best friends are ones I met here.

However the very nature of the life means that for most it is a temperary distraction, and so when their year or two or five is up, they amble on home and out of your life. This always brings the the chance of an awesome replacement, but it also means that bittersweet goodbyes are a common element to life here.

Late July and early August is the departure and arriveal time of the famous JET program, and so it is packed with exits and is always a hard time for those staying behind.

The next couple of weeks will see me saying farewell to two very different best friends.

Five years ago I welcomed Travis into the Kanazawa community and quickly made a fast friend. We traveled together, drank together, survived earthquakes together and moaned about women together. He didnt live in Kanazawa, but was close enough that it was a rare weekend he didnt end up crashing on my spare futon. I dont know if I can count all the good times we had scarfing yakitori and litres of Asahi.

Then I left. He was one of the last people I saw in Japan, coming all the way to Osaka to bid me farewell with a day at Universal Studios.

When I returned to Japan last year we picked up right where we left off, with chicken on a stick and huge mugs of ice cold lager. We havent seen each other as often as we might like, living 4 hours and one very expensive train ride away, but our friendship has never been stronger. I know that Travis will be one of those people that I am in touch with for a very, very long time. Soon we will once again be saying not so much Good Bye as See You Later.

Also exiting soon is Anna, my closest neighbor and most likely closest friend in all Gunma. I feel it is rare to find a beautiful, intelligent woman who can sling poo jokes with the best of them. She dishes out, and takes, all manner of playful abuse with a smile and a toss of her red hair. Though you dont get to best friend status by simply trading barbs about being from Americas Hat. You get that by being there for someone, and she certainly stepped up to the plate. It is no secret that I had some emotinally dark days this spring, and Anna was there 100% with a friendly ear. We always need someone we can talk to, and someone to offer advice. Though I havent always taken her advice, I certainly appreciate her offering it.

Even though we have only been friends since January, we have packed years worth of experience into those few months. We have gone biking up mountains, dancing in Tokyo, to the zoo, to a soccer tournament, to karaoke and more. I dont think I could have asked for a more hilarous and grounded friend. Though her views on penguins, and their proper place in a relationship, leaves a bit to be desired...

Two Best Friends will leave us this month, and our lives will undoubtably be the poorer for it. But of course my life would have been all the poorer had I never met them, and in that there is plenty of solace to be found. Companions for five years or a few months are better than no companions at all, especially when they are of this quality. And now I must look to the future, and the further unknown friends who wait just over the horizon.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


A pair of thunderstorms rolled over Maebashi last night. Of the 18 photos I shot, these were the only two that caught Thor in action, but I'm still pretty pleased with that result, especially the bottom one.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Japan is covered in abandoned buildings, or haikyo. Some are old military installations, some are mining ghost towns, and some are relics of the 80s property boom. Some are just buildings that have been replaced.

Our days target for exploration was the abandoned Mt. Asama Volcano Museum and Observatory. It sits on the slopes of Mt. Asama, the most active volcano on the main island of Honshu. Asama-san straddles the border between Gunma and Nagano prefectures, and if things aren’t too hazy it is clearly visible on my ride to work. The museum was abandoned when a more modern (and less architecturally interesting) one was built right next door. Rather than tear it down, they just left it for the volcano to do the dirty work for them.

Both museums are located in the Oni Oshi Dashi, a lava field left by a cataclysmic eruption in 1783. The name refers to the exiled demons that were ejected from the volcano. It was fun for me to see a lava field like the ones I saw on Kilauea, only 200 years older. Despite the ample scrub, the lava fields still look pretty desolate.

In the 20 some years since it was left to rot, the volcano has done a pretty good job at breaking down the old building. Eruptions and earthquakes have shattered the glass, peeled the paint and even knocked down some walls and support pillars. The structure may not collapse tomorrow, but it is certainly looking a bit worse for wear. In fact, it is looking worse than it did even a few years ago, based on old photos and blog posts I have found online.

While most of the seismic action this year has been off the north eastern coast, the ground under Asama has seen a few good sized tremors as well, including one that hit in the wee hours of the morning on March 12th that woke up everybody in Gunma. This and the eruption in early 2009 have knocked the poor old museum around quite a bit.

While there are signs forbidding entry, it’s quite easy to get pretty close to the building, though plywood across the doors makes actual entry more difficult. In my great folly and or wisdom, I decided not to actually enter, but a couple of people in our group were a bit more adventurous and headed inside. They made it in and out in safety, so either things aren’t as bad as they look or we were fantastically lucky!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Return to the Crater

One of my favorite places in Gunma is the brilliant blue crater lake at Mt. Shirane, and the hot springs town of Kusatsu at the base of the mountain. It makes for an easy day trip from Maebashi, and the scenery is gorgeous and unique.

Our group had failed to consider the effects of the three day weekend, and traffic was pretty heavy on approach to the summit. Heavy in a "You can actually walk faster than the car" sort of a way. We saw license plates from all over Japan as we idled along. We had been joined on our excursion by people from Tokyo, Nagoya, Kanazawa, Utsunomiya and more. Despite the seemingly endless line of cars snaking up the mountain we persevered and were glad that we did.

The temperature in the uplands was fantastic, much cooler than steamy Maebashi. Peter, Dean and Tessia were all new to the sights and smells of Mt. Shirane, and were all suitably impressed. It was my third time to the top, and fourth to Kusatsu, but I had a fantastic time as always. There is a certain thrill to walking around an obviously active volcano that keeps one coming back, even with epic traffic.

While we had places to be in the evening, a stop at Mt. Shirane is not complete without a visit to the famous sulfur onsen below. I maintain that Kusatsu has my favorite onsen waters in all Japan. You just feel so GOOD getting out of the bath, though you do have to be careful of dehydration. I lost over a kilogram of water weight in an hour. It was a good thing we had Gatorade ready for replenishment.

From Kusatsu we sped to our next stop, a place of vengeful demons!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Warm Welcome to High Summer

Every summer sees a flurry of fireworks festivals across Japan. There are actually fewer this year, as many of the larger displays have been cancelled due to the earthquake and damage to the power grid. Luckily for Gunma, the Tamamura display went ahead as planned. 

Several friends came to visit over this past three day weekend, and we launched things with the hour long display. Traffic was pretty rough on the way over, and the area was super crowded, far more than last year. However, we still managed to snag a choice location, almost as close to the display as you could go. When the wind shifted we were sometimes hit with hot ash from the explosions almost directly overhead! It was by far the closest I have ever been to a fireworks display.

I brought along my tripod, and had a lot of fun playing with shutter speed settings for different effects. Fireworks are tricky to photograph, but the end result can be a lot of fun. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Around the Noto in One Day

We awoke the next morning feeling a little worse for wear, but ready to tackle a long day of driving. The Noto Peninsula juts out of the north western side of Japan and is known for its scenic but rural nature. Kanazawa is the cultural heart of Ishikawa prefecture, so there was never much reason to seek out the more rural areas. My lack of friends with cars also made it harder to explore. Japan Rail service stops at Nanao, and I had never made it north of there.

My primary goal for the day was a stop at the Senmaida, or 1,000 rice fields. Its a series of small rice paddies stairstepping down a steep slope towards the sea. Its a very famous place, especially around Ishikawa, and I had always wanted to see it myself. The day was a little greyer than I may have liked, as it often is in Japan. However, the view was still amazing.

My current home in Gunma is one of the more landlocked areas in Japan, so it was nice to get a view of the ocean, in this case the Japan Sea. Travis and I were stopped by a pair of Japanese tourists who wanted to get photos taken with us. This isnt actually as uncommon as you might think. There can still be a touch of "Holy Moses a Foreigner!" in daily life here, especailly in the more boondocky areas.

Our next stop was totally unplanned. We happened to be traveling on Childrens Day, which is celebrated with giant carp streamers. We passed by a small town that had a huge display up, with dancers and food vendors to round out the flying fish. It wasnt much, but it was a nice stop to break up our long drive.

Lunch was at the Nihonkai Microbrewery. Micro brewing is slowly gaining in popularity in Japan, but it still hasn't caught on with the fervor it has in America. There are a few excellent smaller brewers though, and Nihonkai is one of them. Not only is the beer pretty good, but their brew pub is a perfectly American take on pairing good food and good beer in one place. One very scenic place I might add, on a hill overlooking the Japan Sea. They even have an epic slide to take you down to the beach, though you may want to limit your beer intake before you ride it. For lunch I got a big plate of kebab meat, a huge naan bread and enough salad to make me feel like it might be healthy. It was a bit of a culture clash, but still plenty delicious.

We finished the day back in Kanazawa in the Kagadaiko yakitori restaurant. I always say that it is my favorite bar in the world, and that hasn't changed. Excellent yakitori, large cold draft Asahi, hilarious staff and good friends all on offer. It doesn't get much better than that.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Sky is Burning

Yesterday saw a spectacularly fiery sunset behind Mt. Haruna. I Shot a few frames, though on second shot I probably shouldn't have been looking through the viewfinder all zoomed in. My eyes do seem to still be working, so maybe all is well. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ishikawa Dreamin

Over Golden Week I returned to my old stomping grounds in Ishikawa for a few days to visit old friends and see a few sights I missed when I lived there. The lead event was the Dekayama festival in the city of Nanao. Festivals are always a great time, and this one was no exception.

My tour guide this trip was Travis, one of my oldest and best friends. The festival itself was filled with giant floats, good food, plenty of beer and some great company that all made for a great start to the week.

The floats are the centerpiece of this particular festival, and after an opening dance and blessing they are pulled through the streets by a large team of men. Having helped carry the much smaller portable mikoshi shrines, I can't imagine the massive weight of these huge floats.

That could be why the actual pulling didn't last too long, the floats are more for admiring then moving.

Once the festivities wound down, our large group migrated inside. An old acquaintance had offered up his house for crash space to anybody who needed it. We hung out for a while, playing games, joking and drinking. One of the girls who lived nearby actually knew somebody I know here in Gunma. It really is a small world and the world of us English teachers is even smaller.