Wednesday, March 28, 2012

久遠寺 Kuonji Temple in Minobu Yamanashi

DSCF0032Our final big destination in Yamanashi during my mom’s visit was Kuonji Temple in Minobu not far from Shimobe where I went the month before with my friends.

We went just a week or so before the busiest season of the year for Kuonji as we got there before the cherry blossoms opened. I suppose our timing was good as it was easy to get in and out and take a lot of pictures without huge groups people in the shots. I’ve seen plenty of cherry blossoms during my time in Japan but Kuonji really looks like it would have been an awesome spot for viewing.

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Kuonji is one of the biggest Buddhist monk training areas in Japan for the Nichirenshu sect of Buddhists. You will see plenty of younger priests walking about and they seem very friendly.

DSCF0034There are two ways up to the main temple grounds on top of the hill, you can either walk up the long stairway at the main gate at the bottom of the hill or you can drive up and park at the top parking area near the elevator car that is free (optional donation box available) to anyone who is disabled, feeble, or encumbered with a child as I was. Winking smile

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Zenkouji is a real beautiful place any time of the year really. But if you want to see it at its best try getting there mid April, you will be in  for a treat!

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Here’s a few bonus videos! Yay.

Look at those STAIRS!
Nice detailed wood working.
A nice pond.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Takeda Shrine, Kofu Yamanashi

DSCF0025Since my mom was in town my wife I decided to take her to all the tourist spots in town. Our first stop was the Takeda Shrine in Kofu. It’s a pretty spot oozing with historic facts but I’m not going to go into a history lesson here. But if you want to know why he was such a historical figure to this area, click H E R E to view his Wikipedia page.

DSCF0005We visited the shrine during the last week of March so we were just a little too early for the cherry blossoms that the shrine is well known for during this season. We did however witness a child dedication and the end of a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony being held in the building adjacent to the main shrine. It was pretty cool but my mom was the only one who snapped shots of that, sorry. I was too busy chasing the roosters with my camera to get a good shot of that.

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DSCF0009The shrine is pretty easy to get to by bus or train. There is also plenty of free parking for visitors who are lucky enough to have a car like I do. I just wouldn’t expect to find a space during busier times of the year like New Year’s, Sakura viewing, and Autumn leave viewing seasons.

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DSCF0021 Me with the spud.

One thing I especially like about Takeda Shrine is that it has a really neat moat in front of it along with some nice trees. It’s a really well kept shrine and worth a visit if you are in the area.

Here are a couple videos of the area as well. Please forgive the wind noise and shaky-camera work.

The stairs before entering Takeda Shrine.
Takeda Shrine during the off-season

Zenkouji Shrine in Kofu, Yamanashi Japan

Our second big stop during my mother’s visit tour was the Zenkouji Shrine also in Kofu, Yamanashi. This one is just as accessable as the Takeda Shrine and not too far from Kofu station as well.

This is the third time I’ve visited the Zenkouji Shrine I think… I think the last time was during a very sweaty summer. This time was with my baby son. Since it was kind of windy he stayed in the car with my wife as we hurredly took in the scenery and all the pictures we could stuff our cameras with.

The grounds are pretty huge as is the shrine’s main building which anyone can enter. We were really lucky to go during an off-season because this place can get really crowded during holiday seasons and summertime. Even though we didn’t have much time to look around, we got to see everything without a ton of other tourists poo-pooing our shots. That was kind of nice. Smile

Apparently there is also an underground part to this shrine as well but I didn’t have time to enter it. Check it out, its supposed to be pretty cool.

Here’s a few videos of the grounds…

The grounds outside of Zenkouji.
A silly video of me walking through a “spooky” area.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Gifts from my mom

DSCF0001My mom came for a few weeks to visit us and our baby. Before she came she asked if I was craving anything like snack foods or candy. To my surprise she got me everything I wanted and in bulk even. All this junk food will last us for a while.

I was expecting a regular small bag Skittles but I got a huge 54 ounce bag of it. At least the thing is resalable. The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups will be great for dessert. I’m totally crazy for Reese’s.

I wish Lays sold their Salt and Vinegar brand chips in Japan. I’d buy them all the time. I almost forgot how big bags of chips are in the US. Japanese chips are close to lunch size bags of chips you’d get at a Subway. I’ll have to ration those things so I don’t plow through them in a few days.

I even got a huge box of Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal. Too bad he didn’t come with crunch berries. I would have really liked that. Now I can tear up the roof of my mouth like I used to when I was a kid. And I’ll enjoy every delicious moment of it. Open-mouthed smile

Sunday, March 11, 2012

One year has passed since 3/11/2011

These are my thoughts and memories of what happened on March 11th 2011…

I’d be lying if I said it feels like it just happened yesterday but I can say that the images and events that happened on March 11th, 2011 still fill my head from time to time.

I was wrapping up my 4th consecutive year of teaching English at a public school in Yamanashi just like any other early spring day. Nothing could have prepared me for what I felt or experienced that day. I got to leave a little earlier than usual because there was some kind of early student release day planned that day. So I was just sitting down on my sofa when the earthquake started.

I was born and raised in southern California so I was very familiar with earthquakes. Whenever a quake would hit whether it was back home in the US or in Japan, I always shrugged them off as if it was nothing. I even admit sleeping through a couple of them back when I lived in a rickety old apartment a few years back. The set of quakes that went through northern of Japan were like nothing I had ever felt before. I no longer can sleep through the slightest tremor anymore.

At first, it came in really slow and easy. It was as if I was just feeling a little dizzy from a hard run or something. Then it got much worse, the floor beneath me felt as if I were on some kind of boat at first as everything rocked smoothly. Eventually things got pretty rough and I had a hard time bracing myself in a nearby doorway. Nothing in my apartment at that time was big enough for a 6 foot tall adult male to brace himself under so I just held on to an open doorway and hoped for the best.

During all the shaking all I could think was when this would all end and if my 15 year old apartment could really handle the magnitude of quake I was experiencing at that moment. Lucky for me and my neighbors our apartment came out unscathed as did nearly all the other homes nearby.

I tried calling my wife and messaging her but all the phone lines were tied. I was unable to contact her till after she got home much later that evening. The cellular phone lines and mail traffic were way too tied up to get anything through. It was a long time waiting to find out if she was ok.

But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. After I felt the worst was over , I decided to drive out to a clear park near my home where the fewest amount power lines and other dangerous structures were nearby. There wasn’t any power at my apartment so I had no idea what was going on around me when I parked. I had no idea that there was something much worse coming Japan’s way from the Pacific.

Thanks to my rarely used 1seg cellular phone TV and a full battery, I saw an unbelievable sight live on national TV as large black waves enveloped parts of northern Japan. It just didn’t seem real at all.

I spent the rest of that evening without power, heat, or running water. Luckily we got to have a quiet dinner with my parent in laws who were in the next city over that still had electricity. We’d end up visiting there a lot more often as the planned rolling blackouts were carried out in the following months.

The hardest reality for me to cope with had yet to come. A few days later Fukushima Daiichi failed catastrophically and well, the rest is now history. If anything, it just complicated restoration and uprooted even more families from their homelands that were still in tact. It’s a real shame and its going to one of the longest lasting scars to remain form that fateful earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan on March 11th 2011.

Even with all the crazy stuff that happened not only in Japan, but all over the world in 2011, there was one good thing that I could take from 2011. On December 2nd 2011 my son was born in a local hotel right here in Japan. Hopefully he’ll be able to see a better, brighter Japan in his future.

For now, restoring northern Japan is not going to be easy, especially for the areas near Fukushima Daiichi and other places that were exposed to immediately irreversible man made radiation. Many dislocated families will have to wait for a half-life’s worth of time for some patches of northern Japan to become safe for human habitation once again. For me, that extra 30 years will make me a gray old man. That’s the biggest thing that tears my heart apart. The fact that the one disaster that could have been prevented will complicate restoration even further than it had to be.

I am sure that areas that were leveled from the tsunami and untouched by the fallout from Fukushima Daiichi will also continue struggle for some time to clear debris and rebuild lost cities if they are ever allowed to do so. Eventually things will start to be rebuilt and restored as the years pass by but I doubt its going to be as quick as the rebuilding after the great Hanshin quake of 1995.

My heart goes out to all the refugees and the lost from the 3/11 disaster. I hope one day an even more beautiful and safer northern Japan rises in the future from all of this and that no one else has to experience such a horrible set of disasters like Japan had to experience ever again.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Minobu Shimobe Onsen- 裕貴屋旅館

Meeting some old friends/co-workers

DSCF0009I have been in and out of contact with one of the teachers I used to work with when I started teaching junior high school classes about 5 ago. My friend stopped teaching because he was burnt out on teaching and decided he really wanted to pursue a career in farming and agriculture instead. He has been training for the past few years learning methods and doing some apprentice work for various farms across Japan. Ever since he quit teaching he’s kept in touch and has met with me once a year for dinner since. He is the first and only Japanese friend my age that I been fortunate enough to have made over the past 5 years living in Japan.

DSCF0008Usually when my friend calls me up out of the blue he invites me to dinner with one other older teacher we used to work together with. It’s nice to catch up and find out what each of us has done over the past year. It also is a great opportunity to see how well my progress in Japanese studies is going as all of our conversations are in Japanese. This year not only did I get invited to dinner but also invited to stay overnight with them at a hotel/Japanese style bath house with them.

DSCF0007We stayed at the Yukiya Hotel in which is a tired-old establishment in Shmobe Onsen which is deep in the mountains of Minobu, Yamanashi prefecture. The night we agreed on meeting up happened to be very rainy so I didn’t really get to enjoy the scenery but we spent nearly all of our time inside the hotel anyhow.

Like most Japanese hot spring (onsen) towns, Shimobe is full of old rundown buildings. Usually the exterior isn’t as well kept as the interior so looks are usually deceiving. Our hotel was no exception with its very mushy, creaky wood floors and time warped interior that made it feel like I somehow went back 30 or more years into the past.

DSCF0002Appearances aside, the hotel was actually very comfortable and accommodating. The hotel we stayed at had 4 separate baths including an outdoor private bath you could reserve for you and your honey, in our case 3 dudes… Yeah. XD

It’s been maybe 6 years since the last time I bathed in a Japanese style bath with other men. I’ve done it a few times with my wife but its different since we’re married and comfortable with each other. Plus, this kind of bathing isn’t quite a part of my culture so it’s a little jarring to do it.DSCF0001 Especially now that I’ve let myself go just a little because I have gone to a more sedentary life than I probably should have.

ANYHOW, all three of us talked and drank throughout the whole night and into the early morning. We went into all kinds of topics, even how to fix the education system which was particularly exciting for me. Our oldest teacher friend brought a huge duffel bag full of booze which we happily guzzled as we chatted the night away. By the time the booze ran out we were pretty much in our futons anyhow so we just went to sleep.

DSCF0006The next day, I woke up with a pretty fierce hangover but I was still able to function well enough to drive myself home after eating a hearty breakfast served to us in the hotel’s restaurant on the 1st floor. By the time we left and parted ways, the rain had given way to a patchy cloudy early spring morning. I managed to snap up the few photos I decorated this particular post with.

DSCF0004From what I saw of Shimobe Onsen, it seems pretty nice and typical of a mountain onsen town. If you’re into traditional Japanese baths and hotels, this place may be worth hitting. There is a train station not too far down the hill from it and I think shuttle busses are available to take you up there. I drive everywhere so I really can’t be sure. One thing I can be sure about is that it probably looks awesome during the autumn changing of the leaves in the surrounding forest as well as Cherry blossom season. When I went all I saw were partly dead trees and the remnants of winter. Oh well, I don’t live too far away so there always could be a next time I suppose. Smile

Here are a couple of videos of the interior and exterior.

Exterior of Yuukiya Hotel
Interior of Yuukiya Hotel

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Non-alcohol zero calorie beer taste drinks?

Beer-mug[2]If you’ve ever visited or lived in Japan for an extended period of time, you may have noticed beer taste alcohol substitute beverages sold at convenience stores and supermarkets everywhere.

Over the recent few years the ratio of traditional beer to beer-taste alternative drinks like happoshu and daisan has significantly increased. It very apparent that beer has been given the back seat to beer like drinks because of the drastic difference in price. The reason for this mostly comes from the incredibly high tax beer is given in Japan. I read somewhere it was originally taxed so high to protect the Sake (Japanese rice wine) market because beer was in higher demand, and still is to a certain extent.

Every few months or so it seems like a new ‘Flavor’ or brand of happoshu/daisan is marketed to keep interest up in the beer like beverage market. I admit, I also like to taste the seasonal fake beers from time to time just from their labeling and commercials. But I am almost always disappointed with the flavor, aftertaste, or horrible headaches I receive after drinking them. When it comes down to it, nothing beats the taste of a real beer. If you want to drink beer, don’t settle for less, get the beer.

NEC_0063I’ve gotten a carried away with the backstory. I plan to revisit that topic sometime later. Hopefully… Happoshu and Daisan beers only tell part of the story. Due to the success of beer alternative beverages, a new market has opened up and flourished over the past year or so. The new market I speak of is the non-alcoholic beer taste drink line-up. Ever since 2005 when the zero tolerance drink and drive law was established in Japan, Japanese partiers and dinner drinkers have been forced to go dry until recently.

Could things get any worse for beer like drinks, well yeah kind of… Kirin and Suntory decided to try their luck at non-alcoholic no calorie beer like beverages. For the most part its been a successful venture. Many restaurants serve non-alcoholic beers like Kirin-free in bottle form now. I must admit it’s a nice gesture to be able to feel like you are drinking beer at a restaurant and be allowed to drive legally afterward but its just not the same.

The first strike for Kirin Free and others like it is that it is zero calorie, which usually means a very light to non existent taste. I hate diet drinks, I just drink the regular poison fat juice and cola in moderation. If I am going to drink something I want, it might as well be the real thing right?

Anyway, to me, Kirin’s free tastes like carbonated stale grape juice. It also has a pretty unsatisfying aftertaste. The same could be said for Suntory’s brand as well but it isn’t sold as widely Kirin’s is. I think Free tastes like stale grapes most likely because it is grape based. It looks like beer, pours like beer, and even kind of smells kind of like a cheap Hopposhu but it tastes nothing like beer. This doesn’t seem to bother many Japanese people I’ve drank this stuff with during business parties and other occasions. They have most likely become comfortable with beer taste drinks like Happoshu already so their standards have loosened somewhat. So I suppose my opinion on Kirin Free’s flat taste is not all that common. Or nobody really bothers speaking out on it besides non-Japanese expats like myself.

NEC_0062Here’s where my opinion on beer taste non alcoholic beverages improves slightly though, I finally found a non-alcoholic beer that actually is not an affront to my taste buds. Last Friday I was doing my regular shopping routine at a local supermarket and I was approached by a product testing lady serving Asahi’s new Dry Zero. Dry Zero is Aasahi’s attempt at a zero calorie, zero alcohol beverage to counter Kirin’s success. When I first sipped from the tester glass I got a similar disappointing sensation I usually do with non alcoholic beers. But after a second or so it seemed pretty decent to me. Even the after taste and the taste of a burp really felt close to an authentic beer taste. I am not quite sure how they did it but it’s a better attempt at simulating a beer flavor than Happoshu and Daisan Beers.

I have no real intention to buy any of these products for home use but if I encounter the Asahi brand non alcoholic beverage when I am at a restaurant I may get it. I wish the Japanese driving law and tax on beer wasn’t so unbearable and strict but at least I have a worthy alternative to drinking real beer. So, if you are into trying new things and you encounter one of Asahi’s Dry Zero in the wild, try one out. You might find it not too bad as I did. Smile