Naked

I never really thought I’d have the guts to go through with it.

And then I found myself completely naked, without a stitch of fabric covering me, on the 6th-floor balcony of a fancy hotel in Nikko last Saturday night, watching as dusk fell over the mountains and listening to the haunting melodies of a flute playing softly in the background. I was cooling off after a ten-minute soak in the 130 degree Fahrenheit outdoor bath, and I no longer felt the bashful need to cover my body. After a while, I made my way over to the steaming bath by the glow of a few flickering lanterns, joining three other equally naked Japanese women in the hot, soothing waters.

It was simultaneously one of the most awkward and one of the most relaxing experiences of my life here so far in Japan.

Photography in the bath isn’t allowed for obvious reasons, but here’s a photo courtesy of the internet. Looks like a great place to be naked, right?

Point-blank, Americans are weird about nudity. Although the fashions are trending towards more revealing styles, we tend to hide our bodies in gym locker rooms and we blur out nude actors on television. To Americans, it’s a little WEIRD to be naked in front of other people.

The rest of the world doesn’t seem to share our opinion, though: nudity is everywhere.

France, for instance: while I never went to a topless beach, I remember seeing naked people on everything from museum paintings to postcards. I remember thinking that there must be some mandate in the French film industry that says SOMEONE must be naked at some point or another; even if it makes no sense to the plot, at least a few seconds of nudity will be thrown in to most French films. And from my own experience, French and German spas will sometimes have saunas into which it is considered “unsanitary” to wear bathing suits.

It’s not just Europe, actually: in Morocco, even Muslim women will bare it all in gender-segregated public baths called hammams. And in South Korea, there are huge 24-hour  public bathhouses called jimjilbang that feature the typical baths, as well as ice rooms, heated salt rooms, television rooms, and snack bars… families go there for weekend retreats!

Back in Japan, despite the conservative dress code, public bathing and its consequential nudity is a cultural norm.  It’s called onsen, and there are over 3,000 of them in Japan.

Stripped down, onsen refers to gender-segregated public bathing facilities (often in areas of natural hot springs) where people do exactly what you’d think they do: they strip down (completely), wash up (quite thoroughly), and then soak in one of the steaming baths…. which they happen to share with a few other equally naked strangers.

The waters are often thought to have healing properties and health benefits (to be defined as onsen, they must contain at least one of 19 designated minerals like sulfur or iron), but mostly, onsen are just a way to relax. Sulfur baths are the most common, I think… On the Sunday of Silver Week, after chasing a few waterfalls, my friends and I visited a tiny, more traditional onsen in the aptly-named town of Yumoto Onsen, and that bath did smell strongly of sulfur. It was far less fancy than our first-ever onsen, but it felt more authentic. It was also much hotter: the water was 70.3 degrees Celsius, a staggering 158.5 degrees F. (Again, thank the internet for this photo).

onsen 2

I’ll be honest: I was nervous about trying onsen. I think most Americans would be. The whole nudity-in-public thing, you know.

But it’s actually a great experience. The first few minutes are admittedly uncomfortable, but once you realize that 1) NO ONE is staring at you (at least, not any more than they normally do) and that 2) no one else is acting awkwardly, you start to calm down a bit. I mean, really… everyone has a body. Life is too short to be ashamed of that fact. If you are ever in Japan, I highly recommend trying an onsen, because a long soak in one of those magical baths is one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done.

Silver Week in Nikko Day 2: Chasing Waterfalls and Cheating Death

For our second day in Nikko, we bought the 2-day, 3,000-yen bus pass to Yamato Onsen, planning on escaping the central town in favor of exploring the natural landscapes beyond… which is exactly what everyone else in Nikko apparently planned to do. It took our bus a full HOUR just to drive half a mile due to all the traffic. It was a little nightmarish, really.

Eventually our bus got past all the traffic jams, and my friends and I spent the day hopping on and off at different places. First was the cute little lakeside town at Lake Chuzenji, where we made a quick trip to Kegon Falls. Apparently there are a lot of wild monkeys around Kegon, and we were repeatedly warned that they will sneak up on you and nick your stuff–those little theives!–but fortunately or unfortunately, we didn’t encounter any.

IMG_1017

Next was a trip to Ryuzu Falls, which were by far the most forgettable out of all the waterfalls we saw that day. However, my hike the next day brought me once again to Ryuzu Falls, which is how I discovered that you can actually take a small path up to the top of the waterfall (and I really recommend you do, because it makes Ryuzu so much more impressive).

IMG_1034

Our final waterfall, Yudaki Falls, was recommended to us by our fantastic Airbnb host. We would have missed it otherwise, because for some reason it wasn’t really highlighted by the tourist guides. We saved the best for last, though, because Yudaki Falls were by far the most impressive of the three. Probably because you are just so close to the falls; you hear the roar of the water, you feel the mist in the air, and your spine tingles a little bit with the realization of how much raw power is right in front of you.  Even better, the Autumn leaves had just started changing colors, making it all the more beautiful.

Yudaki is not the waterfall to skip, even though it’s pretty far from Nikko itself.

IMG_1067

By the time we took the bus back to Tobu-Nikko Station from Yamato Onsen (the very end of the line), it was pitch-black dark. Funnily enough, the bus ride itself turned out to be a real highlight of the day. There were only six of us at first, and the bus driver wanted an audience. He called all of us to sit at the front of the bus, then proceeded to tell us stories about the forests we were driving through — stories of bears and monkeys and people who had lost their way in the darkness. (Luckily J translated all of his stories for me).

The real fun began after picking up a few more people at Lake Chuzenji. We had reached IROHAZAKA, a pair of dangerous roads that snake up the mountains, connecting the lower elevations of central Nikko with the higher elevations of the Lake Chuzenji region. The newer Irohazaka is exclusively used for upward traffic, while the older Irohazaka is specifically for downward traffic: together, the two roads feature 48 hairpin turns that have led to many accidents.

Driving down Irohazaka at night–in a huge and poorly maneuverable bus–was both terrifying and thrilling. If you looked out the front of the bus as we were swinging around one of the hairpin turns, you couldn’t see any of the road. You couldn’t even see the guardrail. All you saw was the black night and mountain valley waiting to swallow you up.

Everyone on the bus let out little gasps of fear and awe for the most alarming turns, and looking around at all of the faces of the people on that bus, I felt that all language barriers had been broken. It was true camaraderie born of nerves and jitters. We were all in this together. We would be driven off a cliff together, or together, we would live to tell the tale.

Luckily, our driver was extremely skilled, chatting and making jokes to those of us lucky enough to be near the front of the bus as he confidently maneuvered the serpentine road. At one point, he even stopped the bus to let the cars behind him get ahead, and then he commented that you could tell how nervous drivers were by how much they used the brakes. We spent the next few minutes laughing as some cars flashed their brake lights every three seconds as they approached the next curve, and some rode their brakes the whole way down.

In the end, we reached Nikko safely and our anxieties slipped away, leaving only the thrill of the experience. I don’t think any future bus ride will ever compare to that night on Irohazaka.

Irohazawa 1

Irohazaka from the sky. Looks like a great place for a drive, right? (Note: this is not my photo).

Also, if anyone is thinking about heading to Nikko in the future (it’s easily accessible from Tokyo), I have some practical tips–based solely upon my own experiences, of course, so take them with a grain of salt.

#1: Don’t stay in Nikko. While the traditional hotels in Nikko seem really awesome, they also come with a big, fancy price tag… so for people on a budget, I recommend booking an Airbnb in one of the outlying towns. Another thing to consider: basically all of Nikko shuts down at 5pm, because that’s when the temples close. It makes no sense, but by 6:30 p.m.–even on a Saturday night–most of the city is a ghost town, and the few restaurants that stay open will be mobbed.

#2: My friends and I stayed in an Airbnb in Imaichi, which is a 9-minute train ride from Nikko. Imaichi turned out to be a bit of a hidden gem–despite lacking the natural beauty and the ancient temples of Nikko, Imaichi was much less touristy, meaning that the restaurants there were all at once cheaper, more authentic, and open later than any the restaurants in Nikko. Our host in Imaichi was Yuichi, who was probably the most amazing Airbnb host I’ve ever encountered. His cheerful demeanor simply radiated positive energy. He had recommendations for everything–restaurants, tourist sites, onsens–and his advice never failed us.

#3. Even if you are not staying in Imaichi, you can still go there to eat (as I wrote earlier, it’s only 9 minutes away by train). Two places I highly recommend:

*  Kashiwa Cafe and Dining Bar (珈茶話) — Not only was this place open late (till 10 p.m.), but the guy who runs it doubles as an amazing latte artist. We went here both nights for dinner.

* Toriaezu Dining and Cafe (とりあえず) — The ladies who work here are lovely. We went here for a quick, early breakfast, but it turned into a grand, two-hour affair as we chatted with the wonderful women who made us a HUGE, healthy breakfast (rice, fried egg, pickled cabbage, yogurt with fresh pear, edamame-and-scallop curry, homemade yuba, shredded cabbage salad, and smoked ham) all for 500 YEN. Which is $5 U.S. dollars. Amazing.

IMG_1302

#4: Nikko is PACKED on weekends and during holidays (especially in Autumn when the leaves start to change colors) so if you are looking for a peaceful retreat, you might want to go during the summer or on like a random Wednesday. I’m serious about this one, especially if you are driving there. Yuichi said that during the fall, the 5-minute bus-ride from Nikko Station to the temple area can take two hours. And the 90-minute bus ride from Nikko Station to Yamato Onsen can take 5 hours. Spare yourself that pain.

Okay, so that wraps up Day 2 as well as all my recommendations. Stay tuned, though, because next time I’ll bare all…… figuratively, at least.

Silver Week in Nikko Day 1: Gold and Dragons

Once every few years, the stars align and the two Japanese public holidays in September fall on a consecutive Monday and Wednesday–in this case, Monday September 21st (Autumn Equinox Day) and Wednesday September 23rd (Respect for the Elderly Day). And the Japanese have a terrific rule that says if two public holidays fall a day apart, then the day in between must also be a public holiday. (What a great rule, right? We should all learn from the Japanese). Hence, I had a holiday on Tuesday the 22nd for absolutely no reason. This rare 5-day weekend has been recently dubbed “Silver Week,” and everyone in Japan was on the move.

I chose to spend the first three days of Silver Week in Nikko, Tochigi with two friends, J and S.

There’s a famous Japanese saying that proclaims, “Don’t say “magnificent” until you see Nikko.” And after just one hour in Nikko, I was wholeheartedly ready to agree. I don’t know quite what it is about the place, but I felt very alive there.

After a morning of traveling, my friends and I spent Saturday afternoon exploring the main site of Nikko: Tosho-gu Shrine. To briefly summarize Tosho-gu: in the middle of an ancient cedar forest, there lies a huge complex of over a dozen ridiculously ornate buildings and pagodas (picture lots of gold leaf and hundreds of scrupulous dragon carvings) built in the 1600s to honor one deceased shogun. Clearly, the shoguns of Japan were buried in style.

Tosho-gu is also the place to find the famous three wise monkeys, a carving popularized by the emojis. Otherwise known as “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil,” the philosophy behind the monkeys predates Tosho-gu temple by centuries. This carving is actually one of 8 depicting the stages of life… but as you can guess, all the tourists gravitated to the three monkeys with hands over their eyes, mouth, and ears. My friends and I included.

One of the coolest parts of Tosho-gu Shrine, though, was the Hall of the Crying Dragon. Photography isn’t allowed inside, but apparently someone was a rebel because I managed to find three pictures of it on Google. Basically, a magnificent blue-grey dragon with a white underbelly is painted on the ceiling, and if you stand directly underneath the dragon’s mouth and clap two pieces of wood together, the hall’s acoustics create a shrill, spine-tingling sound that was believed to be the cry  of a dragon. However, if you move just a foot away from the spot under the dragon’s mouth and clap the pieces of wood again… nothing. That shrill dragon’s cry can only be heard in one spot in the room, and trust me, it’s pretty damn awesome to hear it.

Nikko Crying Dragon

To make a long story short, the Tosho-gu Shrine was so impressive that my friends and I  felt very accomplished despite it being the only thing we saw that first day in Nikko. In fact, Tosho-gu was the only shrine or temple that we visited during our whole stay, even though it is just one of many famous temples in the area. I think we got our fill of gold leaf and dragons for a while, though, so I don’t feel too bad about missing the others. Plus, Ibaraki isn’t so far from Nikko… I’ll be back.

 

Hi-ho, Hi-ho

Today, I had two options: I could either take the 7:16 a.m. train and its 7:37 connection (arriving to school a full 40 minutes early) or I could take the 7:42 a.m. train and its corresponding 8:03 connection (arriving a more reasonable 15 minutes early).

Valuing my sleep like a true post-grad college student mourning the loss of afternoon naps, I chose to take the latter combination of trains.

And that was the wrong decision.

I switched platforms to take my 8:03 connection…. and instead of finding noisy high-schoolers milling about, I was greeted by a silent, empty platform. Dreading the response, I talked to the stationmaster, and although I didn’t catch anything he said besides “typhoon,” I figured it out: because of last week’s typhoon, that particular train line had cancelled half of its regularly scheduled trains, including the one I was planning on taking! (However, this train line did NOT inform the internet of this fact, because the internet still believed that the 8:03 train was running as per usual.) In fact, according to the new timetable posted on the platform, the next train wasn’t leaving for another 46 minutes!

Of course, I panicked and called my supervisor. Everyone has told me that in Japan, being 5 minutes early is considered “on time,” so I figured being 30 minutes late was a pretty huge transgression. I explained the situation, though, and luckily my supervisor was totally chill about it — I wasn’t teaching until 2nd period anyway, so she told me to just take the next train, as long as I would arrive before 9:40.

That suggestion didn’t sit right with me, though. I needed to do something. As I was googling the distance to my school, two students from that same school arrived on the platform, breathless and expecting a train. “Karen-sensei!” they shouted, recognizing me. I told them “No train!” (feeling a little better that I wasn’t the only one who screwed up the morning commute) and the two girls rushed off again, shouting “bike!” Unfortunately lacking a bike, I decided to suck it up and power-walk the 46-minute route to my school from the station. My goal was to arrive at school before the next train was meant to depart — that would make the walk worth it.

About halfway to school, the same two girls rode past me on their bicycles. “Karen-sensei!” They called again as they whizzed by. “Hi-ho, hi-ho! Ganbatte! (Do your best!)” I found their simple words of encouragement to be terribly endearing, even though I annoyingly found myself humming “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go,” for the rest of the trip.

And in the end, I made it. In fact, I arrived at school a whole two minutes before the next train was scheduled to even depart, meaning that by walking, I shaved off a good 15 minutes of potential tardiness. Of course, I was still an unforgivable 20 minutes late, but luckily everyone today was willing to forgive the poor, sweating, panicked foreigner.

Moral of the story: always be 40 minutes early to everything. In Japan, it’s necessary.

IMG_0775

Tokyo and Mito Photojournal

My weekend in 20 words or less: an Ibaraki JET scavenger hunt, an OWL CAFE, Ichiran ramen, famous Tokyo temples, and a free LED light art exhibit.

When recounting stories in my writing, I tend to get caught up in  the “journal details” — the twisty, lengthy descriptions of feelings or moments that either don’t need explaining or don’t translate well into words. And as a sort of “weekend” photographer (an amateur with an iPhone and a new place to explore), I find that photos can sometimes evoke understanding better than any length of text. So I’ll spare you a barrage of description. Photos are worth thousands of words, aren’t they? But just in case they didn’t make it clear: this weekend was amazing.

IMG_0512

I was Team Photographer for our Scavenger Hunt in Mito

IMG_0696

A free art exhibit entitled Crystal Universe

IMG_0679

Okay, we have our owls. We’re ready. Where are our Hogwarts tickets?

A Typhoon Update

The typhoon has pretty much died out in my area — there are just some lingering rain showers passing through now and then. But the damage was close to home. My part of town didn’t suffer any damage — I walked around for an hour during a clear spell this afternoon — but barely two miles away, as I said earlier, one of my schools is underwater. In fact, it looks as if it rises out of a lake, when just the other day there were sports fields and parking lots. One of my teachers sent me this picture of the school a few hours ago:

Kinu Under Water (2)

Luckily, all of the students were told to stay home, so to my knowledge, no one was hurt, but I don’t know how long it will take for the school to recommence. A lot of schools in Western Ibaraki (which was hardest hit) are closed tomorrow even if they weren’t damaged because it is questionable that trains will start running anytime soon. And many students here rely on trains; yellow school buses are purely American.

Now, though, the big story is Joso, Ibaraki, a town situated 25 miles from me. One of the river banks crumbled this morning, and the Kinugawa river — swollen from too much rain — washed away whole houses in the ensuing flood. I watched on TV as people were rescued from their rooftops. I heard helicopters flying overhead all day, racing towards Joso. The whole scene rang reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, yet this time it was much more tangible for me due to its close proximity. This photo clearly isn’t mine, but it’s one of the images that I’ve seen repeated all day:

Joso

I realize that I was a little light-hearted about the typhoon in my last post, but it isn’t really something to joke about. People lost their everything in this disaster, and even though I was completely safe, some people were not. I was deeply touched, however, by the stream of emails and messages that I received throughout the day from fellow Ibaraki JETs — some who know me, and some who only really know my name. Disasters like this are tragic, but they also make you realize how blessed and supported you are, even when you feel a little alone.

 

Typhoon Days

There is currently a typhoon/tropical storm wreaking havoc throughout the Kanto region, and I’m stuck right in the middle of it. Seriously. Ibaraki Prefecture (where I’m located) and Tochigi Prefecture (which begins in the next town over from me) are the two worst-hit areas. Up to 500mm (or 20 inches) of rain has fallen in some cities, and thousands of people have been advised or ordered to evacuate due to flash floods and landslides.

There’s no need to worry about me, though! While certain parts of Yuki have had evacuation orders issued, and while one of my schools is apparently UNDERWATER right now (it’s right near the river), I’m perfectly safe. My apartment is located on higher ground and I’m nowhere near the river… the worst I’m faced with at the moment is that the puddles on my street are huge, so I’m pretty lucky.

In fact, I was pretty oblivious to the fact that there even was a typhoon until yesterday evening.

IMG_0339

Tuesday was actually the beginning of the storm in Yuki, although it really just rained all day. Tuesday also happened to be my first day working at my furthest visit school. So thanks to the typhoon, that meant that I arrived absolutely drenched after my 25-minute commute via bicycle. Great for first impressions, I can assure you. Luckily, though, I had the foresight to bring a change of clothes, so after my hair dried I was back to normal.

Yesterday, the rain worsened considerably and the lightning began (although I still just thought we were having rainy weather, so I walked to school). My fellow teachers were horrified to hear that I had walked, and after informing me that this was actually a typhoon, they insisted on driving me home at the end of the day.

I was planning on going to school today anyway, but one of my teachers called at 6:45 this morning and informed me that school was cancelled due to the typhoon. My reaction: a celebratory cry of “TYPHOON DAY!” and then I fell back asleep without another thought.

However, it’s a little more serious than a snow day. You know it’s serious when the 24/7 convenience store is closed! All jokes aside, though, the trains have been completely shut down and  the first floor of my Tuesday school is actually underwater according to one of my teachers. I’ve spent the morning watching the news; they keep showing footage of dangerously overflowing rivers and people struggling to wade through knee-high water in what was once a city street. I can’t understand exactly what the reporters are saying, but “Ibaraki-ken” and “Tochigi-ken” are being said every ten seconds, so these videos are clearly close to home.

I’ve never really experienced a storm this bad, so I’m glad my teachers are keeping me informed. Two of my base school teachers actually drove to my apartment to check up on me this morning! I can’t emphasize enough how kind everyone here has been to me.

For now, though, I’m logging out to enjoy my very first typhoon day. Instant noodles, yoga, tea, and a movie are on the schedule. Stay safe and dry, everyone!

An Afternoon in Provence

I just discovered my favorite place: Cafe la Famille, a half-acre of France that lost its way and settled in the middle of a Japanese neighborhood.

It was a grey and drizzly day yesterday, so a friend and I decided to postpone our hiking plans and we settled instead for a late, leisurely lunch. I suggested trying Cafe la Famille, the French bistro in Yuki city that everyone in Ibaraki has recommended to me. Seriously, residents of towns 45 minutes away from Yuki have raved about Cafe la Famille, so I was expecting the food to be pretty good. What I was not expecting was this:

IMG_0318

It was as if we had stepped straight into a little French farmhouse in the countryside of Provence. And the café itself was absolutely charming:  rustic wood tables and chairs, servers in black-and-white striped shirts, a combination of Celtic and Parisian music playing in the background… Not to mention the food!

We ordered galettes — thin, buckwheat crêpes from the Brittany region of France — and bottles of cidre doux (sweet hard cider). Japan likes 3-course set meals, though, so we ended up starting with a pumpkin soup made from Cafe la Famille’s own garden-grown pumpkins. Our galettes followed, and they tasted exactly like the ones I used to eat in France. They paired perfectly with the cidre, which was of course imported from France for authenticity! Following the meal was dessert: a delicious little pumpkin scone (again, made using the cafe’s own pumpkins) topped with vanilla ice cream, and accompanied by iced chai teas.

All of this for 2,300 yen per person (about $21)!

We learned that the menu at Cafe la Famille is always changing because it is based upon the produce in season (as well as what they grow in their gardens) — the way it should be in restaurants.  My friend and I both loved our experience so much that we want to make lunches here a monthly occurrence, especially so we can sample all the different the seasonal menus. Plus, the entire staff was unbelievably kind to us — showing great patience, using easy Japanese, and asking us curious questions. As we left, they all warmly invited us to return, and there is no doubt in my mind that I will be back.

IMG_0317

IMG_0315

Finding Cafe la Famille is like discovering a home away from home. Whenever I really need it, an afternoon in France is just a few steps away.

September 1st

For geeks like me, September 1st will always be the day you spend wishing you were on the Hogwarts Express, riding off to a school year full of witchcraft, wizardry, and butterbeer. But this year, I was a little too distracted to spend the day wishing….

…because yesterday was my first day of school as a TEACHER! August was just a warm up–a time to settle in, google some lesson plans, and practice introducing myself in Japanese to every single person I met. Now that the students are back,  though, this whole teaching thing just became real.

My only real task yesterday was to introduce myself… in Japanese… in front of the entire school at the opening ceremonies. No big deal, right? I’d been practicing–seriously–on every single person that I’ve met for the last month. Yeah, well, I STILL managed to totally screwed up my yoroshiku onegaishimasu in both assemblies. (Since my base school’s schedule is rather unique by Japanese standards, we had TWO opening ceremonies yesterday–one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Lucky me, being put center stage twice!)

Forgetting all the stress of self introductions, my first day as a teacher was pretty great. The students at both opening ceremonies seemed really excited to meet me despite my pronunciation flaws, and a few of the more outgoing students made sure to escort me back to the teacher’s room so they could shower me with questions. And to top it off, every teacher received a bag of beautiful, ripe nashi (Asian pears) at the end of the day. Perhaps a bizarre nod to the forgotten tradition of giving teachers apples? Whatever the reason, it was a lovely way to end my first day. Ibaraki is a far cry from Hogwarts, but it’s a new story for me.

IMG_0266