Monday, March 18, 2013

Snowstorms and Surprises


This isn't a direct quote, but I'm pretty sure this dramatic cry of frustration was uttered at least once between driving through the whiteout to Geto ski resort, struggling through the whiteout from the car to the main building, and staring into the white wall of snow beyond the door where the ski lifts, usually visible, were meant to be. It was probably expressed best when Gavin fell to his knees and shook his fists in defeated anger at the universe. A perfectly reasonable response.

Brave souls.

Two weekends in a row, and two thwarted attempts to go snowboarding at Geto in Iwate, one of the best powdery slopes around. The hill was open, but only one small lift near the bottom was operating, and we could barely see anything five feet in front of us, let alone that single functioning lift, through the pelting snow. We knew it wasn't worth going out, but we weren't ready to let go of our hopes right away.

After confirming that the weather would probably be better the next day, we eventually made our way home - slowly, as the expressway was now closed due to the inclement weather. This was one of those days when we should have just stayed home, though of course the sky was beautiful and perfectly calm back in Yokote. We went out for ramen so that we could feel justified in having left our apartments.

Fortunately for us, the weekend was not to be a complete disappointment - it was Nikki's birthday on Saturday night, which ended up being the perfect combination of relaxed chatting and interesting encounters. We chilled at a local wine and tapas bar, a nice change from the usual Japanese fare we find ourselves surrounded by. We ate cake, although those who were driving home decided to take their slices to go so as to avoid pushing Japan's zero blood alcohol limit, as the frosting contained trace amounts of Bailey's. You can never be too careful.

But the most interested part of the night was when we decided to go to Nihonkai afterwards, a local bar whose owner is friendly with all of the Yokote ALTs (and even friends with many of us on Facebook). Mako-chan is notorious for his love of sake, for cooking up strange and wonderful dishes for us to try, and for falling asleep at some point in the night, but not before telling us to help ourselves to more drinks and just leave our money at the bar when we go. It's a tiny, cozy place, all furnished in wood and decorated with various plastic fish and lots of goofy photos of regular customers and Mako-chan himself. One wall has a list of all the regulars' birthdays. As you can see, it's the kind of place that draws the same crowd night after night, giving it a very familiar feel. It's also nice to walk into a place and have the owner remember your name and call out "hisashiburi!" (it's been awhile).

By the time I arrive at Nihonkai on any given night I've gone, the bar is already strewn with empty glasses, sake cups, several half-finished bottles of drink, and dishes - usually with plenty of leftovers of whatever Mako-chan has decided to serve up. If he's run out of whatever he cooked earlier, you can expect sashimi, slimy seaweed known as konbu, or a variety of other interesting underwater fare to appear in front of you. At Nihonkai, I've tasted more kinds of fish than I know the name for, along with okonomiyaki, whale soup (the most controversial thing I've eaten in Japan by far), and a curious white mush which I later found out was oh-so-delicious fish sperm.


There is also an acoustic guitar in the corner, and spontaneous jam sessions have been known to happen; usually with Mako-chan singing AKB48 to the ladies, spoken-word style ("I love you, I need you, I want you..."), or with him belting out something by Celine Dion.

On this particular night, there were two other customers when we arrived. They immediately made space for us around them and we chatted in a mix of English and Japanese about where we were from and exchanged various English phrases, like "best friend" and "BFF". One dude, who was wearing a hat made out of wood (!), asked us each several times about our country of origin. It went something like this:

" from?"
"Oh, CANADA!!!"

*ten minutes later*

"You're from America?"
"No, Canada."
"Oh, CANADA!!!"

*five minutes later*

"In England..."
"I'm from Canada."
"Oh, CANADA!!!

*ten minutes later*

"New Zealand is also very New Zealand beautiful?"
"Yeah, it looks very nice...I mean, I've never been there, I'm from Canada, but I'm sure it's beautiful..."
"Yeaaaahhh, New Zealand...iiiiiii naaaaaaaaa..." (it seems nice; I want to go...)

His next mode of entertainment was by imitating us every time we spoke. Mumbles of gibberish came from his end of the bar anytime one of us English speakers said something. At one point he was trying to communicate in this manner with Kathie, who was on Skype on Nikki's phone, as if his gibberish must certainly amount to meaningful words in our language!

He danced, he gibberish, he Englished, he made faces, he told us not to light his wooden hat on fire. Did this really happen?

At the end of the night, he pulled out his smartphone to add Gavin to Facebook. After several failed searches, probably due to mistyping his name, Gavin took the phone and tried to do it himself. A huge list of Gavins popped up onscreen and, not having the patience to scroll through them to find himself, he quickly chose one near the top - a Gavin with a profile picture of a tiger. "That's me."

"Oh, TIGER-san! Tiger Gabiiiin!!!"

Yes, yes. Tiger Gavin.

I got one last surprise as we were about to pull away in the car, when I looked out the window to see Wooden Hat Man staring straight in back at me.

There must also be a very surprised Gavin out there in the world right now, wondering who this Japanese, wooden hat-wearing man is who wants to be his friend.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Exploring Yamagata

The great thing about living abroad is getting the chance to really saturate a particular area of a country. Upon returning home, I will have a rare insider’s perspective on this far-flung, remote little corner of Japan called Akita, one which most people will never even get the chance to visit.

There are lots of other beautiful areas of Tohoku which are just a daytrip or short weekend trip away from me, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite places, having been here for more than one year. Back in the fall, Gavin and I decided to do a weekend trek around Yamagata, the prefecture just south of Akita, full of gorgeous natural and historical sites. I’ve been to Yamagata at this point many times, but was happy to go back. I think I even enjoyed some things more the second time around.

We started out one Saturday morning with a pleasant drive down the coast to Sakata, which is apparently a beach resort city, though its beauty wasn't exactly striking on that grey November morning. At one point we jumped out of the car to see the crashing waves, only to stand there shivering as the wind whipped against our faces.

Beautiful, beautiful Sakata. Fun fact: the name Sakata means "alcohol fields"
Fashioning a snowman out of sand
We continued on in search of a famous five-tiered pagoda that Gavin had read about in a Lonely Planet guide, but when we reached the supposed destination, all we could see was a mediocre temple and a garden pagoda not much taller than he was. I couldn't help but laugh at his frustration that we must be at the wrong spot, while I insisted that, surely, this was the pagoda that Lonely Planet had spoken so highly of.

Eventually we sorted ourselves out and found the real pagoda - and it was quite a sight. We wandered through the temple grounds, listening to the breeze rustling the cedars and monks chanting nearby.

Cruising through the mountains, we were greeted by our first sighting of what has now become an excessive, everyday reality: snow. Watching the flakes fall outside as we drove those winding backcountry rads gave me a bit of a thrill. The anticipation of change, of winter, of snowboarding, of curling up inside with blankets and cups of tea and good books...just some of the many things I like about the season, despite my dislike of the cold.

We stayed in a small guesthouse in Yamagata city, which was the first experience I've had indoors in Japan from November to April where I actually felt warm. Cozy, even! Usually the kerosene heaters typical of most Japanese homes, schools and inns only warm a small portion of a room or building, leaving me with cold feet and hands, and forcing me to put on an extra sweater anytime I leave the room to wander down a hallway. But not this place. This place was genuinely comfortable, a comfort which extended to the decor and warm hospitality. It felt like we were staying in someone's home, and we were encouraged to help ourselves to most of the contents of the fridge, as well as play with the resident cats.

Cats! There were so many. Gavin's love of felines quickly became apparent...

The owners were friendly, and we chatted for awhile in both English and Japanese before we headed off to grab dinner and explore the city. Yamagata city isn't huge, so there wasn't much to see, but it has a pleasant downtown area with a variety of ethnic foods and interesting shops. The next day we found a fantastic coffee shop that had been recommended to me by a friend. Housed in a train car and filled with knick knacks from the owner's world travels, the shop sat overlooking the river, with a great view of the changing leaves. Here we were also able to chat with the owner, whose English was superb, while we sipped our espresso and chai tea and tried out his collection of international musical instruments.

Finally, we visited what had been one of my favourite places in Yamagata on a previous daytrip - Yamadera. A Buddhist temple built into the rocks of a cliff, the view is as impressive and beautiful as the peaceful forst pathway that meanders to the top. Having ben here during the summer, when the cicadas buzz and the shady path is a welcome relief from the heat, it was great to get to see it in the fall as well. The sunlight streaming in through the trees created a magical, Ghibli-esque atmosphere, and we lucked out with a perfect sunny day.

Scenery shot - photo bombed
"What is my life?"

Some corny jokes, good road trip tunes (Boney M Christmas album!!), general silliness, and several cat impressions later, and we were rolling back into Akita. We were welcomed by the sudden sight of Mount Chokai's snowy peak, glowing white in the darkness ahead. Such a beautiful mountain. I'm glad I still have some time to soak up my surroundings here, as there are lots of places I'd still like to visit, and others I hope to return to again.