Saturday, August 23, 2008

Last fireworks festival of the summer

Fuefuki Fireworks Festival 8-08 001 I've been to three fireworks festivals so far this summer but this week's was the closest and best one I've experienced. On average I've driven up to 50 kilometers just to see fireworks displays in other parts of Yamanashi but nothing seemed to hit the spot till I experienced the Isawa Onsen fireworks festival. Go figure that the Isawa Onsen festival is only about a 30 minute drive from my home and also was the most interesting and accessible of the bunch.
Fuefuki Fireworks Festival 8-08 029 The Isawa Onsen fireworks festival takes place in Fuefuki near the river and attracts over 20,000 people yearly. It was quite a feat navigating through the sea of humanity to find a clear spot to stand and view the fireworks and even harder to get out of there when it was over.
So now my summer officially comes to an end and I am anticipating another new semester teaching. I can't believe its already been a year since I arrived here. I have already gained a lot of good teaching experience which may be a good point on a future resume but I still haven't really done anything about improving my Japanese level. What's even more upsetting is that I still don't have a clear idea what I want to do after teaching. I know I don't want to teach in my current job forever because it barely can support a single guy comfortably, and there is also no chance of pay raises or moving up within the ranks of the teaching company so I'd rather just finish my time and move on to something bigger and more secure.
Fuefuki Fireworks Festival 8-08 088 The topic of my future came up because Yuko and me were talking over dinner the other night and she squarely told me that I haven't done anything to improve my Japanese at all and I have absolutely no goal or ambition to get a better job. And you know what, she's absolutely right. I've been sitting on my hands for the past year when I could have at least gone out and asked her to help me study Japanese or something. Well, the time has finally come and I made a simple resolution to finally go out and pass the level two Japanese proficiency exam later next year. I could have passed it when I graduated from college a few years ago when my studies were still fresh in my mind but I really didn't know what to do with my self after graduation and wasted whatever I had at that time.
Fuefuki Fireworks Festival 8-08 057  So today Yuko and me will go out book shopping to start me on the right track. With all the free time I have in the afternoons, I think I can manage to get my Japanese back up to the level I had it when I graduated college. My real goal is to get it up to a useable level so I can actually promote that skill as an asset for any job I may apply for. Its not like a good job or opportunity is just going to fall in my lap because I'm a nice guy. I need to get stuff done for myself or at least get the ball rolling.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Delicious charred mammal flesh...

Yard Renovation 009 Ever since I moved into my new apartment I've always wanted to use my yard as a spot to relax and have a nice BBQ. Before I started cleaning up the yard and fixing the place up, I really didn't feel it was right to have a BBQ at my place because of all the tall grass and dirt back there that would just make things messy and possibly dangerous. Well now that I've cleared out the yard and filled it with pretty Japanese garden style rocks, I now have what I envisioned. A yard for a delicious BBQ.
New kitchen floor 001 Last week or so, I finally got around to buying a grill and all the supplies needed to have a BBQ. Since BBQ's are supposed to be with friends, I had Yuko invite a couple of our friends  over for a BBQ. It worked out pretty good and there was just enough room out there for about 4-5 guests including me. I was a little worried that the smoke from the BBQ grill would be annoying to my neighbors but nobody has complained once during the three times I've BBQed out there since.
New kitchen floor 001 I find there is nothing better than a Japanese style BBQ. I really love their sweet sauce that the meat is dipped in along with a bowl of rice. It really hits the spot and fills me up quick and at a really reasonable price. Before now I had to get my BBQ fix at restaurants which were pretty expensive and a pain to go to because I can't drink there if I drive. Now I just bring the party to my house and its all good. I hope I can have a few more people over for a BBQ before the summer is over. I want to make the most of what I've got now.
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Home improvement

New kitchen floor 001 Up till now I've put a lot of hard work into an apartment I know I won't be living in after a couple years. My girlfriend thinks I'm a little crazy for wanting to fix things around the place, and maybe I am, but its something that has been keeping me happy and busy. Fixing stuff is in my blood and there is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment after doing something constructive.
New kitchen floor 002 This time I decided I had enough of the original vinyl flooring in my kitchen and picked up 12 packets of fake wood self adhesive floor tiles. The original floor had a really bland pinkish-beige color to it and also had some odd stains on it that I really didn't want to see anymore. The main reason I went through with changing the floor is because the floor tiles were 100 yen per pair of tiles. In other words it was cheap enough and simple enough to give it a shot.
It took me a little over an hour to cut and fit every piece on the floor but it came out looking very professional and nice. Although Yuko disagreed with me re flooring the kitchen, she seemed to really be impressed with how nice it came out and gave up her complaining. Now that I've seen how easy and nice the cheap flooring is to set up, I may finish the job and redo the restroom floor also. The floor in the restroom is a really tacky pinkish color just like the kitchen was and really looks bad against the new flooring in the kitchen. If I can find the same pattern flooring, I may do it by the end of this week since I have one package left. I estimate it would only take about five more packages to cover the floor in there anyway. Its just cutting around the toilet that will be a challenge.
New kitchen floor 004  The only other thing I would like to fix in my apartment are the bathroom walls and ceiling. The bathroom is the only place left that has any hint of the past smoking tenants.  Replacing the unit is out of the question and painting it is also impossible since it is plastic. Hopefully I can find a reasonably cheap industrial strength cleaner or something to bleach the walls out. Its really just the walls and ceiling that are stained, the tub and floor were miraculously spared. Well, that's for another day I guess. I can live with its current state, because I scrubbed it down good and killed every last bit of cigarette stink. My place smells and looks nice now and that's all that matters.
Well, whoever happens to live in this apartment after me will be happy to have such a clean place to live in compared to what I stared out with. If anything I bet they'll raise the rent a little on this place for the next guy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Initial D Road Trip!

ind022 Usually loosely planned things don't pan out all that well but this time they worked pretty good. Yuko and me had been planning to travel somewhere in Japan over our summer break since I don't have enough money saved up to fly back to the US. We decided to drive out a couple prefectures over to my old home Gunma to visit a couple popular hot springs.


Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 039 We decided to avoid all toll highways because of the absurdly high cost of gas and the equally absurd tolls we would incur. The drive ended up doubling in both distance and time but we saved a lot of money and got to see a lot more than we would have on the boring highway. I ended up driving about 90% of the time because most of the roads we took were seriously windy mountain roads which Yuko is absolutely terrified of. It was no skin off my nose though, as I really enjoy a good series of hairpin turns.

Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 007 Our first stop was a popular hot spring in Gunma called Ikaho Onsen. I've been there before when I was studying abroad in Gunma but really didn't get much time to enjoy it because I was only there for about an hour last time. We stayed at reasonably priced hotel where we were able to get our own private hot spring with free buffet breakfast and dinner included.

Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 004 The hotels in Ikaho are fairly old and look really worn inside and out. Yuko wasn't really thrilled with staying at such an old hotel but she was happy to be there because the price was too hard to resist.

Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 027 It was also nice to escape Yamanashi for once, its a nice place to live but its not as pretty as Gunma. Plus, I am a huge fan of Initial D and most of Initial D's courses are based in the mountain courses of Gunma. The best part of the trip was that most of the courses I really wanted to see were within driving distance from Ikaho Onsen or on the way back home.
Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 005 Ikaho is famous for its long, narrow staircase shopping district and its natural hot springs. I could really care less about hot springs though, I was there primarily to take pictures and just enjoy the scenery.

Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 003 The only really interesting thing about the hotel we stayed in besides it being super old, was one of the previous guests etched the Chinese character "Noroi" into the wall. Noroi basically means spirit or haunted, and this really freaked Yuko out. If she found it before we went to sleep she would have slept in the car instead. She was that scared of the place already before she found the etched word. As for me I was thrilled at the sight of it because I love ghosts and folklore.
Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 049After we got our stuff situated in our room and checked out Ikaho's shops we went out to Lake Haruna for a little leisure ride. I've been wanting to ride in a goofy swan boat in Japan for a while so we ended up driving up to Lake Haruna where a few parts of the Initial D series take place. It was nearly picture perfect there from what I saw in the manga and anime. 
Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 051 I got to see the boat dock where the swan boats are in the manga and also got to see the meeting area for the downhill course start area. The biggest highlight of the Haruna drive was that I got to see the real course which was really windy and would have been really fun if I were in a real car rather than my girlfriend's pink Nissan March. Oh well, at least I got to drive the course and take tons of pictures.
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Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 011 On the second day, we left Ikaho and went about 13 kilometers down the mountain to my old city of Maebashi. I got to see my old university, Gunma Daigaku and where my old apartment used to be.
I was fairly shocked to find the school had gone through a major remodeling and looked nothing like what I remembered it to be, and my old apartment was gone. I wasn't all that disappointed to not find my old apartment there but I was a little sad to also find that the old man that lived in an old hobble next to me was gone and so was his home. He probably did just like he joked he would, well God bless him and hopefully he died happy although he was lonely.
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Above: Before, Below: Present
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Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 014 After a trip through memory lane in Maebashi, we decided to take a little side trip to Kusatsu hot springs as well. What was really cool about our unplanned detour was that we unwittingly stumbled across another famous Initial D course. We took the Usui mountain pass which took us by the large bridge in the middle of the course. We stopped at the bridge and were really surprised at how beautiful and cool it was there despite how hot it was in the city. The bridge used to be an old train line which has long since been empty. We got to walk through a portion of the tunnel also.
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Ikaho Onsen and Mt. Haruna 046 After stopping at the bridge, we continued driving towards Kusatsu but ended up making yet another detour which took us to Mt. Asama. I've been to Mt. Asama before but not to the Oni shrine (I forgot its proper name). The Oni Shrine is pretty cool because it sits amidst a craggy volcanic rock formation. It was a pretty cool place to stop and another great place to snap pictures for my never ending photo album.
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Kusatsu Onsen 001 We finally made it to Kusatsu just before nightfall and got to enjoy a quick walk through the city. This would be about the third or fourth time I've been there but this time seems to have been the best because it wasn't crowded and I was with somebody I wanted to be there with. We had to stay at a hotel nearby because it was too late to drive home but it was a really nice detour.
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On the third day we went to a big shopping mall because Yuko is a shop-a-holic. After that I continued to drive back home through Nagano and finally home where I went straight to bed. The trip turned out to be really good considering we only planned to go to Ikaho Onsen. The Initial D portions of the trip were purely coincidental because I saw a manga at a convenience store that reminded me that Gunma was all about Initial D. Yuko's GPS Navigation system was also a great asset, as we were able to find places fairly easy with its help. I wish I had navigation in my car now because of how much I used hers. It can help you find restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and homes based on phone numbers, landmarks, or just addresses. Really handy stuff.
I still have about two more weeks of summer vacation left. We might go somewhere else if we can agree on something. I really don't want to waste any more days just sitting at home surfing the net or watching old episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A little landscaping

1183924344703 Its so hot right now in Japan. I prefer cold over heat any day because I can layer till I feel comfortable. The average temperature in my city is about 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit which isn't really anything I'm not used to. The thing that makes the weather unbearable is the extreme humidity we have here. Even if it rains it still feels hot and sticky and I am already looking forward to the milder fall weather. I still have at least another month of this hellish weather and I'm not too happy about it.
I remember arriving here last year around the same time and feeling completely oppressed by the humidity. I can't believe a year has already passed since I left to work in Japan in 2007. I also have about the same amount of money I started with back in August 2007 which is kind of disappointing. It takes a lot of money to start living in Japan and to move, so I know where most of the money went, but its still discouraging to see I made nearly zero progress in my savings. At least I've been steadily paying my credit and student loan over minimum for the past year, so in a way my money hasn't been completely wasted...
Yard Renovation 009As much as I am concerned about saving money, I recently put my money into some room renovations. I got my apartment at such a "low" price that I took it with a few major flaws. I painted the cigarette stained wallpaper and floorboard trim in my bedroom last month. This month I began to focus on my back yard. Originally, my back yard was very  ugly and full of rocks, weeds, and dirt. I had bigger plans for my yard outside of storage, I want to use it as a place to relax, BBQ, and to admire as my own private area. So last weekend I bought a weed hoe and a rake at the 100 yen shop to clear out the trash and rocks. Unfortunately I lost pictures of my yard before the cleanup because I accidentally deleted the folder, but trust me it was like a mini-jungle back there.
Yard Renovation 008 The yard looked tons better after it was cleared of all the weeds and stones but I still wasn't satisfied. So a couple days ago I ended up buying some special black anti-grass tarps to lay as a foundation for my new rock yard. I ended up laying about 70kg of rocks in my small yard and still have a couple spots that are bare. Now my yard looks like a California desert rock garden. After tallying all my rocks and supplies, by backyard renovation put me back about 3,800 yen. I suppose that's a night or two dining out with a couple drinks which isn't so bad. The yard still looks a little bare, so I may buy a couple cheap hearty potted plants to put some color out there but I don't plan to spend any real money on any more improvements out there.
Yard Renovation 010 I'm very satisfied with the renovations I did on my apartment room and yard. I know I don't own the place and won't live here maybe a couple years from now, but I want to make my life as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Fixing the place up was a way to make my home, MY HOME. There are still a couple areas in my apartment I plan to fix and tweak but at least now I got the big stuff out of the way. Hopefully I can start saving some real cash beginning on my one year anniversary living here. Maybe now that I have some space in my yard, I might buy a workout bench or some free weights to get back into shape. It would be a heck of a lot cheaper than joining a gym here...