Sunday, February 23, 2014

Yokohama on Saturday

I made plans with a friend to meet for breakfast and spend some time at the art museum.  Breakfast was yummy, but suspiciously resembled dessert.  I present to you, cold strawberry banana pancakes (with caramelized sugar on top of the pancakes and whipped cream and ice cream (!) between the strawberries and bananas):

J.S. Pancake Cafe
The art museum, it turns out, is closed until March 1st--a minor detail not mentioned on the English version of their website.  I spent an hour and a half commuting to Yokohama for pancakes I could have eaten in Tokyo (they have multiple locations in the city).  Good thing the conversation was great.

Living in Japan without fluency (or literacy) in Japanese is manageable, but you have a lot of moments like this.  We pay a premium for not being able to read Japanese.  The premium is paid with money (grocery stores with English labels charge a premium) and time wasted.  It also helps to never expect things to go as planned because, well, they usually don't.

(For the record, I don't think this is a Japan problem, it's an expat with no language capability problem.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Skiing at Hodaigi in Minakami, Japan

On Friday morning, I arrived at the office with my suitcase so that I would be prepared to head directly to the train station in the event of a last-minute meeting or work emergency.  This turned out to be a good idea because I made it out of the office just in time to head to Shinjuku and catch the bus.  As anticipated, Shinjuku was very busy and difficult to navigate while toting even the smallest of suitcases.

(Tip: If you're planning on skiing in Japan, you can use Takyubin to ship your luggage or gear in advance.)

The trip was organized by the Tokyo Snow Club, which means that they arranged the bus, accommodations, lift tickets, rentals, onsen and some meals.

The bus delivered us to the Blue Monkey Lodge in a surprisingly short amount of time.  (Let me be clear that I do not recommend this accommodation to anyone looking for a place to stay in Minakami during the winter months.)  There were six women assigned to my room.  A space heater was provided, but it was so cold that we could see our own breath (this was true both that evening and the next morning, after the space heater had been running all night).  You see, the Blue Monkey hadn't turned on their central heating and there were even windows wide open on our arrival!

Our room at the Blue Monkey Lodge

The next morning, I skipped a shower because there were only two working showers for the thirty-nine people staying at the lodge.  The provided breakfast included two pieces of bread and a glass of water.  Not what I had in mind, but the trip got better from this point out.

We arrived on the slopes shortly after nine o'clock.  Our rentals had been arranged in advance by TSC, so pick up was very quick.  I just walked up to the skis, boots and gear labeled with my name, scooped them up, and walked out.  It doesn't get much better than that!

Welcome to Hodaigi!

The slopes were great and the quality of the snow was excellent.  It turns out that, even after a ten-year break, I can still ski pretty well.  This was my first time on parabolic skis and, wow, do those beauties make skiing a lot less work!

A look at one of the lifts up to one of the beginner runs.

Here's a slightly better look at the base of the resort.  It's a pretty small place, but there were enough runs to keep us busy on this weekend trip.


So how was skiing at Hodaigi different from skiing at a comparably sized U.S. ski spot?  One downside was that other than the couple of cafes on the slopes there weren't places to eat within walking distance of our accommodation.  This means there wasn't an alternative place to grab breakfast or dinner on our own.  But it wasn't all bad.

For starters there was this giant, cute snow kitty at the base of the slopes near the kids' area.

Sno-llo Kitty

The beer selection looked a little different.


And, best of all, the lift tickets were very reasonable.  

This 2 day lift ticket cost JPY 5,300 or USD 52!

Skiing after so many years away from the slopes brought back a flood of memories of skiing with my family as a kid.  It is a wonderful thing, as a very homesick and lonely adult living abroad, to be reconnected with those types of memories.

The rest of the trip consisted of onsens and a few more hiccups with the provided meals and the accommodations.  We arrived back at Shinjuku at a reasonable hour, which was an accomplishment given that while we were away Tokyo had received the largest snowfall of the last 45 years.

Tokyo neighborhood on Sunday night.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Snowy Adventure!

This weekend I'll be on a bit of an adventure.

After work, I'll head straight to Shinjuku station to catch a bus to Minakami in Gunma prefecture.  Fun facts:

  • Shinjuku station is the world's busiest transport hub (per the Guinness World Records), making it a fun place to be with a big bag during rush hour.
  • I'm renting my ski jacket and pants in addition to skis, boots and poles.  Count me skeptical about renting ski clothing, but it seems to be what's done here by infrequent skiers (or expats who weren't allowed to bring all their belongings to Japan).
  • I haven't gone skiing in nearly 10 years!

While it probably would have been a lot more exciting to jump on a plane to Hokkaido for Sapporo's snow festival and skiing in Japan's most epic powder, I just can't spare the vacation days.  I'm still pretty jazzed about skiing somewhere local as missing the opportunity to ski in Japan last winter was one of my chief first-year-in-Tokyo regrets.

Last weekend, I visited the row of ski and snowboard shops between Ogawamachi and Jimbocho to pick up a base layer and a few other items.  (Aside: If you are looking for Australians, take thee to Jimbocho.  I have never seen so many Aussies in one place in Tokyo--presumably, they're all picking up gear before heading to Niseko.)

All this has got me reminiscing about the ski trips our family took growing up.  Mammoth Lakes, California.  Big Sky, Montana.  Aspen, Colorado.  Mt. Hood, Oregon.  Lake Tahoe, California.  Brian Head, Utah.  Man, was I spoiled rotten by my Dad's enduring love for skiing (and ability to get great hotel deals in exchange for presenting at professional conferences).

I am pretty worried about my knee and the ACL I tore back in college.  It's been repaired and hasn't given me any trouble since, but I'm still nervous to test it with skiing.  Please keep your fingers crossed for me.

Hoping to have a great time and report back with some interesting pictures :)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Neighborhood Shrine

Before heading out to do some errands this afternoon, I stopped by the shinto shrine in my neighborhood.  Shrines like this one are tucked into quiet corners all over central Tokyo.  This particular afternoon it wasn't very peaceful at Hikawa shrine due to maintenance and construction work.

I am by no means particularly knowledgeable about shinto practices, but here are the bits and pieces I've picked up from my coworkers.

Enter through the tori gate.

Purify yourself at the chozubachi by using the ladle to pour water over your hands,
using some of the water to rinse your mouth.

Approach the shrine.

Do you see that little table right behind the long ropes?  You drop a coin through the slots in the table and then use the long ropes to ring the bell (it's not very loud).  Next, you bow twice, clap twice and then bow again.  At other shrines, I've seen people get on their knees for the bowing and clapping, but here everyone stood.  Theoretically, you take a few moments to pray, but everyone I saw today must have been busy because they were on their way as soon as they finished their last bow.

There was a shinto priest inside the shrine, which was decorated with some beautiful carvings and paintings.  It felt too intrusive to take a picture of the inside, but here is a link to a Google image search if you're interested.

Ema or prayer plaques.

On the side of the shrine, there was a window where you can buy ema.  I've been told you are supposed to write a wish on the ema and then leave it at the shrine.  Each of the ema I saw today had an intricate drawing on one side and a wish written on the other.  Here was my favorite design, which I assume celebrates the lunar new year:

I didn't get a picture of the omikuji because they were tied to trees near the location of all of the maintenance work.  Omikuji are small slips of paper that have predictions written on them.  After you read your fortune, you tie the paper slip to a tree branch and, supposedly, this will help your fortune (good fortunes come true and bad fortunes are avoided).

I left the shrine through this side gate.  It opens out onto a residential side street.

I've visited a number of small neighborhood shrines while wandering through Tokyo on the weekends, but it's about time I start making an effort to visit the major shrines and temples.  As long as my stay in Tokyo seems it will be, I am sure that the last few weeks will leave me wondering why I didn't take more time to be a tourist while I was here.  Time to get serious!