Hunting Hydrangeas in Kita-Kamakura

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My friend Harry and I love hydrangeas, though he calls them “Old Grandma” flowers. While not the most dramatic or fragrant, I think of hydrangeas as big pom-poms of colorful cloud blooms. They’re soft to the touch, and pleasing to the eye – I mean, could you ask anything more of a flower (other than the aforementioned fragrance)? Harry has been talking about hydrangeas since last semester, and so we both decided that once the “viewing season” began, we would go to Kita-Kamakura. Kita-Kamakura is an a-joining suburb of Kamakura, roughly a twenty-minute walk to the main tourist drag of Kamakura station.

Now, guidebooks will tell you that you should avoid weekends when doing anything popular in Japan, be it hiking, sightseeing, or eating. When you’re working a full-time job with no holidays or PTO, weekends become the only time to do anything touristy. We braced ourselves for crowds of shade umbrellas and selfie sticks, and met at the small station of Kita-Kamakura. Luckily, though the streets up to the Meigetsuin (Hydranga Temple) grounds had a constant stream of people, it wasn’t quite as bad inside the shrine proper.

I like the different flower seasons in Japan – plum, sakura, hydrangea, chrysanthemum, etc. The Japanese really do love to photograph the flowers, almost as much as they like to photograph themselves among the flowers. Harry and I took a cue from the crowds and took many fashion shoot selfies with different giant blooms. It’s a little early in the season (when this posts it will be in full swing), but the hydrangeas did not disappoint. Blue, white, purple-ringed – hydrangea blooms reflect what’s in the soil. I planted blue hydrangeas back home, but they blossomed white because of the Ph balance in the soil. I wonder what must be laced in the temple grounds to get such a variety of colors.

The funniest moment occurred as we tried to find a place to buy Eno (the wooden prayer tablets). There were several lines what we had avoided, snaking up and around the largest shrine. Not wanting to be rude foreigners, we did not want to cut the lines if they were going the same place we were. One line, the longest, was packed with people carrying their Goshuinchou (red stamp calligraphy books), and led into the shrine. We couldn’t figure out why there were two lines until we worked our way gingerly towards the front. It turns out it was simply a line for taking a picture in front of a pretty window! This is something that is a bit of a cultural divide for me, as an American. We line up to take pictures with Mickey Mouse, sure, but not for the Liberty Bell. The Japanese are extremely good at queuing. And this second photo/selfie line specifically blocked the way to the Eno seller, so we wound up cutting anyway, with a demure “Sumimasen.”

Quick details:

Meigetsuin is a quick walk from the Kita-Kamaura station (Yokosuka Line), exiting on the east side. It costs 300 yen to enter the temple, and 500 to go to the second half of the temple (we did not do this, but according to this site there is an iris garden back there).

There are some other beautiful little shrines on this side of the station. The last time I went to Kita-Kamakura I got off on the west side, and found the town to be a little boring and almost industrial. Walking in the direction of Kamakura there is a main road full of shops and coffee houses, many of which are expensive small room eateries. There are also flowers everywhere. Harry and I joked that we could have saved the 300 yen to experience the “Hydrangea Temple” and simply walked up some of the side alleys. We noted many visitors who did just this.

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If you are a resident of the Yokohama area, you really should take day (a weekday, if you can afford to) and go exploring around this area. We found a nice coffee shop where we cooled off and browsed our many photos. In Kamakura, after turning left at Tsurugaoka, we got burgers at an excellent underground burger joint (Google Maps yielded nothing, since both places were new and the street views are from 2015. I think one place might be Rans Burgers, but don’t quote me on that).

 

They say it’s good to stop and smell the roses every once in a while. I say the same holds true for just about every flower, even old lady flowers that don’t have a scent to their name.

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via Daily Prompt: Blossom

Hiking in Japan: Nokogiriyama

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Whew!

It’s been a long break, and I have a whole list of topics which require attention. So let’s get to it!

Looking for an enjoyable hike outside of Tokyo? You should try Nokogiriyama!

First of all, you get to take a ferry. It’s a bit of a walk from Keikyu-Kurihama or Kurihama station, so I recommend taking the bus from the train station to the ferry dock. The ferry leaves roughly every hour, and costs around 750yen. I’ll explain why later in this post, but I thought the ferry ride was perhaps the best part of the trip. First of all, the seahawks follow the ferry because people throw food to them. They dive in and out between the seagulls, and it is quite a show. Additionally, you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance as you cross the bay (provided it’s a clear day). You can also go around the bay via train from Tokyo.

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Mt. Nokogiriyama is home to the largest stone Buddha statue in Japan, which is why I decided to go. The weather was great, so I made my only mistake of the trip – I walked to the south entrance of the temple from the ferry port. The maps of the area are misleading, and you need to know this. There is no safe path to the mountain trail from the ferry port if you head south. You can take the cable car easily enough from the ferry – there are plenty of signs. Fool that I was, I wanted the “full” experience and decided to walk.

I wound up going through some frightening highway tunnels. These tunnels have no pedestrian space – you have to walk along the shoulder, on a curving road. I was genuinely uncomfortable around several corners, as big trucks would go roaring by and I only had a couple of feet to work with. In between the tunnels, there were some beautiful ocean overlooks and a couple tiny roadside shrines. I would not recommend walking to the back/base of the mountain if you have children, strollers, or anything bulky. Either take the ropeway up, or take the train from Hama-Kanaya (again in the Ferry town/Kanaya) to Hota. It might be a slightly longer walk from Hota, but it will save you some clenched cheeks.

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I Google Translated this sign before entering the tunnel – it tells drivers to look out for cyclists and pedestrians. Once inside, however, there is no space for a pedestrian to feel truly safe.

After the tunnels, I found the road leading up to the path towards the temple. There was no one on the path (probably because they were all on the safe side of the mountain), which made for a pretty hike up to the entrance. At the back entrance, there was a solitary woman working in a garden, who came up to me as I wandered through the gate. I paid my fee (600yen), and got to exploring.

From the “southern” entrance, the first few photo stops include some pretty traditional temple buildings, including a beautiful wooden structure. Then comes the large Daibutsu. It was pretty warm that day, and the Buddha is out in the sun, so I did not linger. I lit my incense, said my prayers, and moved upwards. Of note: if you are looking for traditional Jizu/Buddha figurines, there is a sort of shrine where people stack the little figures by the hundreds. You can buy them at the temple shop nearby (it’s also where you light the incense).

Nokogiriyama is all stairs, so be advised. There are very few inclined spaces – it’s primarily stairs. So if you dislike stairs…well, this is not your day my friend. I realized this around the two-third’s point, as I was passing through the alcoves of preserved Buddhas on the way up to the “Hell view” (Jigoku Nozoki). It was tiring – I like hiking when there is a variety of inclines. I imagine that it would also be a difficult climb if you were in a wheelchair or needed assistance. I passed elderly couples huffing and puffing, and gazelle-like children who were literally jumping up and down the flights of steps up to Jigoku Nozoki.

The overlook is a sheer face down, and this is not a natural occurrence. This mountain was a stone quarry for a time, and so you can see the tidy work of the stonecutters. I liked it, and I asked a stranger to take my picture. This is where being in Japan works to one’s advantage – I left a stranger with my smartphone for quite a while as I walked down one viewing station to the overlook itself, which is a separate point. It’s a beautiful view. You can see all the way down to Hota, across the bay to Kurihama. It had grown hazy in the afternoon, so Mt. Fuji and Tokyo had disappeared, but I could see the Yokohama Bay bridge in the distance.

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Nokogiriyama is a good beginner climb, as it tops out at just under 400m (1200ft). I congratulated myself on climbing all the way up, so I took the fast, efficient, and only mildly unnerving cable car down. It took me about an hour and some change to make it around the mountain to the south entrance, and so by the time I got to the top it occurred to me that I would have saved a great deal of time if I had just been lazy and spent the money on the cable car.

The fishing village was still a bit closed (the season hadn’t officially kicked off), but there were several pleasant tourist shops selling fish and pickled vegetables, not to mention stuffed oranges as mascots. I wandered around the largest shop for awhile, waiting for the return ferry.

I took the ferry back, and again I thought it was a true highlight of the trip. It’s forty-five minutes of comfortable travel. I like water traveling, so I loved the pleasant rocking as we crossed the bay. There are fishing boats, large tankers. I even saw a submarine!  And I found I enjoyed the trip as much as the climb because it was something both exciting and calming. Unlike traveling by train, the ferry doesn’t stop and the whole of the trip is out of my control. All I need to do is sit/stand and enjoy being on a tiny bit of the ocean. I opted to sit in the cooled inner cabin and write in my journal on the trip back, having acted like a child watching the hawks on the journey to the mountain.

If you are are in need of an easy escape, Nokogiriyama is a great option. Want to know more? Here are some separate pages of information! Final information – take the bus from the port to the train station.  Go, and enjoy!

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You can see the Hamakanaya port below you from the peak.

A Weekend of Cultural Woofs

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Sakura season is coming to an end – by the time this goes to print I think all but the sturdiest cherry blossoms will have been stripped by the powerful winds that have been blowing through Yokohama/Tokyo the past few days. I have a sort of philosophy about Sakura and why it’s so popular here in Japan, but I will save that for another post.

Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, I took a weekend to enjoy some cultural events in the Tokyo area.

First, I headed to Naka-Meguro after getting a Facebook suggested post. It said, “Go to the Danish Royal Embassy and see the floral arrangements!” So off I went. I’ve never been around Naka-Meguro that much. It reminded me of Chicago’s North side a little bit, full of boutiques and a multinational collection of restaurants. Just outside the Embassy a giant tree was losing its leaves, so I got the strangest conflict of impressions, as the street, temperature, and scents made me think of autumn, even though spring was all around

The cost of the Danish exhibit “YELL” is 500 yen. And let me say, it’s worth it if you have the time to spare (it runs till April 27).

On the eternal debate between flowers and chocolate, I fall firmly in the flowers camp. There’s more variety with flowers, better smells, and as neither chocolate nor flowers last forever I’d prefer to have the colors and variety. Looking at master arrangements can be just as thought-provoking as more traditional artwork, and Mr. Bergmann’s arrangements evoke a range of emotions, from austere wheat spheres to loud and brash collections of stems and blooms. I was impressed with the sheer variety of plants on display.

I also enjoyed the temporary structure of the gallery – pine and canvas that suggested camping and emphasized the fleeting nature of the installments. I love it when space and purpose meet. I bet I’m not alone in this thought…

There are other pieces as well, as there appears to be an upcoming celebration of Danish-Japanese relations in May (I would link to the websites, but they are all coming up as “suspicious” by my virus software. I don’t want to post bad links). When I get more information, I will try to post it here.

After the Danish exhibit, I headed further into Tokyo to attend the second of my cultural events – the 10th annual Tokyo Wan-Wan Festival in Yoyogi Park! What’s a Wan-Wan?

Why this is!

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It’s the Japanese interpretation of a dog’s bark. I think it’s fun to compare how something as “universal” as a dog’s bark gets translated across the globe. I believe I read somewhere that dogs bark in different languages (*Google search* yep, here is an example). And the Japanese take almost too good care of their dogs. Clothes, strollers, custom grooming – these are the fanciest of dogs.

I miss my own dogs. It’s one of the hardest things about living abroad; leaving all my animals behind. So this was my opportunity to shamelessly pet some fluffy doges, doggos, and puppers. The festival was far larger than I anticipated, with rows of dog-related stalls selling custom treats, leashes, and clothing. There was a space for showing off the well-groomed dogs, a space for demonstrating tricks, and at least two or three other spaces the purposes of which I did not figure out.

This is obviously my shameless attempt to lure readers with pictures of dogs. Here you go:

 

After this, I went to Shibuya to meet up with some coworkers. I took a final photo of another, more famous dog, and went out for a night of carousing. Nomihodai (all you can drink), combini beers, and some mucking about in the famous crowded crossing of Shibuya square. I met some of my former students, and was luckily not so drunk as to agree to go clubbing with them. I also met an “avant-garde” jazz musician who was photographing his cover art along one of the avenues.

All in all, this was a fine day.  Sometimes I fear that I get so caught up in the day-to-day of working in Japan that I forget that I’m actually living in Japan. When I was in China, there were not many means of getting out of my city, but everything was so utterly different that my daily life did not have a recognizable routine. Here it’s different. I have co-workers, a full day of classes, and a pattern that repeats itself. My company enjoys and promotes this sort of unchanging repetition I believe, and that’s alright. Nevertheless, it’s important to take the opportunity to go out into the world, especially when the world offers such wonderful sights.

Finding a Gym

Last semester, I had to walk three miles every day to and from school. I tried joining a 24-hour gym near my train station, but they wouldn’t accept me because I was not fluent in Japanese (yes, fluent, according to my friend’s boyfriend’s translation, who added it was code for “you aren’t Japanese.” Ouch). I did a little bit of yoga, but ultimately I considered the walk to be my “exercise.”  While my weight and body shape did not change that much, I inevitably toned up. Excellent default improvement!

My new company-assigned apartment is significantly closer to work, so I want to go back to working out at an actual gym. They are everywhere in Japan. There are 24 hour fitness rooms, large traditional gyms (like Golds), a growing collection of Crossfit specific gyms, massive community centers that have traditional Japanese sport rooms (martial arts, archery, etc.), all sorts of boxing and martial arts schools, and everything in between. Somehow I’m in a neighborhood with no neighborhood gym, save for a Curves the size of a broom closet. I’m not allowed to use the gym at my campus, so I had to expand my search.

After searches for “Gym,” “Sports Center,” “Fitness Complex,” and such, I found four good candidates for my new gym. I avoided gyms that were focused on Crossfit or offered any sort of “complementary” metabolism programs, since the advertised programs jumped in price once the complementary periods ended, and my Japanese is too weak to negotiate that kind of language.  I really wanted a pool, and my maximum budget was 10,000 yen/month (roughly $100/month).  From the map search, I started researching websites.

Research was difficult, as not every site had a good English translation. And comparing price points and distances, not to mention thinking ahead of my possible commute to and from work, I got frustrated. In the back of my mind, I remembered that the glorious spa and onsen complex in Tsunashima, Prime Fitness & Spa, has a gym. It was over my maximum budget, but only by about 2,000 yen a month, and I would get unlimited access to the beautiful on-site onset.  I tried to convince myself that I would happily go out of my way to access a gym I recognized, and that the onsen would be enough of a draw.

Then I cleared my head, and remembered what I learned from watching a lot of “House Hunters: International” back home. Going over budget is not a good option. While I enjoy onsens, I’m not a worshipper. And there was no way I was going to commute out of my way several days a week.  The price might guilt me into action, but I like having money to spend on other things (like my toaster oven, and the bread to put into the toaster oven).

The solution was to go and do some on-site visits – again, much like “House Hunters: International.” I do enjoy binge watching that show back in the States.

Gym 1: Jexer Fitness: Just under budget, had a pool, off a train line – I found this one by myself, after a bit of a walk. The place was friendly, very crowded, and just under by budget. I got a tour, and it was packed with people. I think this is because I visited on the weekend. Even so, I got a positive vibe from this gym. The women who worked the front desk were quite friendly, and were very patient with my lack of language skills.

Gym 2: Konami Sports Complex: Over budget, pool, six stories of options, closer to home – I took a friend who spoke Japanese with me to the Konami sports complex. This place had everything I wanted, but it was cold and lacked personality. That might sound like a strange thing to say about a gym, but nothing about this place made me want to go. And the price was almost comical – unlimited access cost about 15,000 yen/month. The cheapest monthly option allowed access to the gym four times a month. Yes – 8,000 yen/month to visit the gym four times a month.  So I said no to Konami.

Gym 3: Renaissance Lite: Under budget, old, has pool, ten minute walk to major train station – this was my last visit, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Removed from the train station, sort of tucked next to a school, this gym was old but immediately welcoming. Not as new as Tipness, not as big as Konami, Renaissance Lite gym had a pool, a training room (fitness center), an aerobics studio, and a rooftop driving range. What’s more, it had an included onsen in the locker room. Best of all, the price was only 6,500 yen/month.

Gym 4: Tipness – Modern, new classes and facility, recently renovated after the earthquake: I did not visit Tipness after I decided that I liked Renaissance. The website did not have an English option, and the price points were all over the place.

Hooray! I have a gym! It would not have been so painless if I did not have someone to help me. I’m glad that I did the research and the leg work. And in a fine twist, I’m now walking about 3 miles a day to and from the gym (which I do just about every day, as I want to save on my transportation budget).

I anticipate joyfully dumping EFL stresses in my gym’s pool/ cardio courses…

 

 

 

 

St. Patrick’s Day Samba

In an effort to get out and find low-cost things to do in Tokyo (my job gets a month’s labor from me before I get paid. I know, it’s rough.), I asked one of my coworkers about St. Patrick’s Day. He said there was a parade.

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Now, I lived near Chicago. Chicago dyes the river a bright green shade, and everyone drinks to excess starting at sunup and going until well past sundown. It’s a ridiculous amount of revelry and vomit.

In perusing the advertisement for the parade volunteer requirements, I saw the following in bold print : “No smoking. No drinking. No high heels.” Well, at least two of those make sense to me (smoking and heels). Still, it looked like a small, humorous event. If I am being honest, I had no idea what to expect when considering the relationship between Japan and Ireland, if such a thing existed in any depth.

I invited my friend Sharon with me as an “interpreter,” and we went to Omote-sando on Sunday. The weather was perfect – sunny, not too cold or hot. I told her about Chicago, and at one point I had to admit that while there’s a chance an ancestor of mine came from Ireland, I had no proof and had never claimed Irish ancestry on St. Patrick’s day.

“That’s refreshing!” She said. “Most people try to claim Irish heritage, when it’s some second cousin’s uncle. Sorry, that doesn’t make you Irish.”

“Well, my patron saint is Saint Brigit of Ireland – and I don’t make crosses out of river reeds on her day either,” I added in full disclosure. I know my lineages pretty well, but I really only claim the ones in which I actively participate.

The parade started off with about as much awkward happiness as I expected, with the Irish Ambassador, Miss Ireland, and a tall man dressed as St. Patrick, complete with a fake beard, leading the parade. They were followed by bagpipes (“Scottish.” Was all Sharon said upon seeing them). Then came dancers, fiddlers, pubs advertisements, and giant inflatable Guinness pints. There were also samurai, cheerleaders, samba dancers, and a bunch of traditional Japanese…tap-dancers? I mean, it was the most glorious hodge-podge parade I have ever seen. Everyone was bedecked in green, orange, and white, and they were having a fun time.

And it was a lot longer than expected. There were no floats (the closest thing were the Guinness balloons), but there were a lot of Irish-appreciation groups. There were the Irish Setters club, the Druidic society of Japan (?!), at least three dancing schools, and of course the travel abroad and foreign exchange student programs. The parade went on a large loop between Omote-sando and Harajuku, so that at one point the samba dancers were competing with the bagpipers every time the parade stopped (usually coinciding with the crossing guards allowing pedestrians to pass through).

As the last of the emerald clad parade groups walked past, we decided to go on to Yoyogi park to check out the Irish festival, which had been going on all weekend. Sharon and I are both fans of hard ciders, which are notoriously hard to find in Japan (the closest thing I’ve found are some of the apple beers – not the same thing). We were in luck, and found that Magners (imported from Australia via Ireland we hope) was ready in cold bottles for just over $5.00 a bottle. I justified this by reminding myself that beer costs more for less at a baseball game. Magners is not my preferred cider (Angry Orchard or Woodchuck), but it was just what I wanted on a warming spring day. Too poor to buy souvenirs or actual food, it was a fleeting souvenir.

All in all, I am very happy I went to the parade. It got me thinking a little bit about the debate over cultural appropriation back in America. As Sharon and I watched the “Irish” band warm up – where only the fiddle player looked “Western,” I tried to build a theory. Irish fiddle music exists all over the world, but I have never encountered an Irish person upset at this idea. I theorized to Sharon that perhaps it’s because Ireland is seen as a partially “occupied” nation that it gets such acceptance into other cultures. The Irish are distinct from the English, and the English have an Imperial legacy that the Irish do not, even though technically they are both part of the same “United Kingdom.” Sharon agreed in part, citing that Irish music is distinct from Scottish or English music, and as such might travel better.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say. Judging from the festivities, this was high praise indeed!

 

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