At 8 o’clock this evening I left my apartment to embark on my major vacation to cap off the year. Moto invited me along to go snowboarding at Mt. Myoko in western Japan. So I met up with him in Shinjuku where we grabbed a quick dinner and walked to the bus pick up. At first glance , it appeared to be sheer pandemonium. There were three dozen buses squeezed onto both sides of the road in a one block stretch. Hundreds of people were running around with snowboards on their backs. Through all this commotion, we found our two fellow travelers and got on our bus. Carson, a fellow ETERNAL teacher, is from Seattle. Taka, an old buddy of Moto’s, spoke excellent English. They nicely rounded out our party.
Our ride was very short as we drove to northern Tokyo, parked in a garage and exited the bus. If the scene before was hectic, this was now crazy. Our bus parked with dozens of other buses and hundreds of people poured into the garage. We made a mad dash to the check in point and got our travel information. We managed to find our new bus and boarded. Goodbye parking garage.
By 11:00 PM we were on the road out of Tokyo to the mountain. The drive ahead would take eight hours. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
We arrived at our mountain at 7 AM. The lifts wouldn’t open until 8:30 so we had some time to kill. We visited a local onsen to collect ourselves. An onsen is a hot bath fed my natural spring waters. We paid 450 yen for a half hour’s bath. An onsen is a real treat that everyone should try. Most onsens are split between a bath for the men and a bath for the women. As was this onsen.
I entered the locker room and stripped down. I entered the adjacent room where the hot water waited for me. Before slipping into the pool I first had to wash off. I took a seat on a very small stool. I lathered up and rinsed down. I then tip-toed into the scalding hot water. I finally relaxed and let my gaze drift up to the steamy windows. After 10 minutes I climbed out and washed the onsen’s water off. I stepped back into the locker room and got dressed. What a lovely and refreshing moment that was.
Next, me and the boys put on our coats and walked down the street. The town we were staying in was the definition of a sleepy mountain town. There were maybe 50 buildings in the whole town, of which I saw most. We stopped by a rental shop so Carson and I could rent some gear. Since this was my first time snowboarding, I had nothing but the socks on my feet. I rented a whole set and we walked a bit further to our inn. We dropped off our packs and set back out. From our inn, the first ski lift was a three minute walk away. Not too bad.
We took the first lift up to reach our second lift. From the top of the second lift we spent the first half of the day warming up. Well, the other guys were warming up. I was learning how to snowboard. Snowboarding is every bit as difficult as I had read. I spent the first four hours on my back. I kept thinking of the old proverb, “What do you do when the horse throws you off?” “You get back on.” If I fell down 100 times, I got up 101.
We had lunch at a restaurant on the mountain, at a Japanese curry shop. The food was tasty and warm, and it helped to thaw us out a bit. We returned to the lift and rode it up. We decided on the way up to try the other side of the mountain and see how it compared. We all locked into our boards and started down the new path. However my clamps jammed and I was late following the guys. By the time I had caught up I had taken a wrong turn down a different path & they weren’t to be found. Puzzled I maneuvered the winding paths and ended up back at our earlier lift. I was lost and alone, on a mountain peak in Japan.
I sat around for sometime hoping someone would show up. Eventually I became cold and hopped back on the lift. I was starting to feel sorry for myself, and I hate doing that. I might as well be active and enjoy myself. Maybe I would even see the guys on my way back down. I rode the mountain up and down for the next four hours, by myself. 30 minutes before the park closed I followed a new path down the mountain. Eventually I found the base and walked over to the lockers, where Moto had locked his pack with my phone inside of it. The locker was empty. I laughed out loud, because that was all I could do. I picked up my board and headed back for the inn.
A few minutes later I found the inn and stepped inside. I immediately saw Moto, who seemed to breathe a huge sigh of relief at my sight. They had spent the entire afternoon combing the mountain looking for me. They had even made an announcement over the park’s loudspeakers. We all laughed and apologized for the confusion. We then changed clothes and dried off. We relaxed in our room for a half hour and let our muscles began to feel the soreness. At 6, the inn keepers served dinner to all of their guests. We visited the cafeteria and enjoyed a traditional Japanese dinner.
Back upstairs we drank a bottle of nihonshu and laid out on our futons. By nine, the lights were out and we were all asleep. Tomorrow would be another big day.
Morning did indeed come early. We were up with the sun at 7 AM. We ventured back downstairs for a traditional breakfast. We ate, we dressed up and checked out of the inn. By 9 AM we were back on the ski lift. Every muscle in my body was sore, but that’s never stopped me from snowboarding before. On the ride up, we chose a rally point, to avoid the calamity of yesterday. Then we were off.
After a few warm up runs, we hopped the lift to the mountain’s peak. It was only my second day of snowboarding, and I was going to take a shot at the widow maker. I did surprisingly well, having only a few minor spills. Throughout the day this would be the path I took most often. From top to bottom, it was a 20 minute ride down. Pretty sweet.
The weather in the afternoon cleared wonderfully and visibility was amazing. Whenever I would wipe out and end on my rear, I would adjust myself to take in the view. There’s something surreal about viewing a mountain range from an adjacent mountain. It’s so… humbling. It really puts everything into new perspective.
For lunch we visited a shop next to Wednesday’s joint. We thawed out and ate a big bowl of ramen. Sodium & starch, yummy. We spent four more hours on the mountain before our final time down. Back in town, we changed our outfits, and returned our gear. We had an hour to kill before our bus was to pick us up. As such, we ventured back to the onsen from yesterday.
The hot spring experience this time was very different. The locker room and bath was jammed back with naked men. What followed was one comical event after another. Although to remain polite, I was forced to stifle all of my laughter. Many of the men, young boys & old men alike, were vey modest about their nudity, using their tiny hand towels to cover themselves. I have no such modesty! I undressed and strutted around like I owned the place. I then waited patiently for a shower head and stool to open so I could take a shower. The seat, where another naked man had sat just before me, was still warm. I was sure to wipe it off. I then squeezed into the hot water between two elderly japanese men. There’s no better way to experience a foreign country, than to sit between two naked locals, right? As I soaked in the minerals and ambience, I looked down at the water below my chin. A stream of short, black, curly hairs were coming my way. I subtly waved by hand to turn back the tide. Just before I was to get out of the water, the gentleman next to me had the same thought. He stood up and came within a centimeter of grazing my cheek, with his cheeks. I shrugged it off and stood up.
In the lobby with the boys, I was finally able to release some of my giggles. We sat around on the tatami in our pajamas and stretched as we waited for the bus. Soon enough the bus arrived and we boarded. We left Moto behind, who was getting picked up by his father. The first leg of the ride home was very enjoyable, as Carson, Taka and I had the whole bus to ourselves. We each laid out and took a great nap.
The ride home was interrupted several times by picking up other people and making the mandatory pit stops. By 11 PM we were back in Shinjuku and I boarded my train. Shortly after midnight, 52 hours after I left, I was back home. 5 minutes later, I was asleep in bed.
I woke up late after catching up on some much needed rest. The day then started on a sour note as I watched the entirety of the Husker game. As frustrating as it was to watch, it made me feel a little good. Husker fans are spoiled. A 10-4 season is complete disappointment in Nebraska. How many schools can feel that way too?
Fortunately, it was New Year’s Eve, and I had no time to be depressed! I laced up my shoes and boarded my train. I met up with Lauren & Lisa in Tokyo’s Korea town. We had some delicious Korean barbecue and chatted for a few. We then headed across town to Shibuya. There we had some coffee and chewed the clock.
At 11 PM we walked down to a pub chain, called the Hub. It’s a very popular bar with Europeans and English speakers. I figured it would be a great place to ring in the new year. We got drinks and muscled our way to share a table with some Japanese gentlemen. We soon discovered the boys could speak a little English and struck up a conversation. Our party of three became six.
Due to the tight nature of the bar, I accidentally brushed up against a person behind me. I turned around to lock eyes with a beautiful young woman. I invited the two ladies to join our table and we now had eight. Soon enough the countdown to 2011 began. As the clock struck midnight we all popped our confetti, shouted & clinked our classes.
Success, we had brought in the New Year. Now we had seven hours until sunrise. I organized our party to depart from the Hub and go find some karaoke. On the way out of the door, two of Lauren’s guy friends joined us. We now had 10 people. We wandered the streets of Tokyo for a short time, looking at all of the public displays of drunkenness. I couldn’t help but to think of Mardi Gras & the streets of New Orleans. Once humble Japanese men were in their underwear break dancing in the middle of an intersection. I’m glad that tonight, I wasn’t “that guy.”
Soon after, we were in our karaoke room. One of our party representatives booked a room for four hours. I wasn’t thrilled about that length, but pulling all nighters in karaoke bars is pretty common in Japan. So per usual, I went with the flow. Four hours later we emerged from our room to a scene of complete debauchery. People were sleeping in the hallways. Attendants were mopping up vomit in an adjacent room. Everywhere cigarette butts littered the ground. Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad about my three beers this evening.
Back at the station our party split. We bid goodbye to Lauren’s friends and my new lady friend. The girls and other gentlemen, and myself, boarded a train for a large shrine in Tokyo. At 6 AM we made the short ride and brief walk to the temple. We prayed to the gods and I bought a charm for good luck in 2011. We then shuffled back to the train depot and waited for our line.
At 7 AM, we saw the new sun break the building skyline. It is a Japanese tradition to see the first sunrise of the year, for good luck. It is also good luck to visit a temple. It seems I’m bound to have a lucky next year in Japan. Soon our train arrived and we began the long ride home.
I finally crossed the threshold into my apartment at 8:00 AM. I halfheartedly brushed my teeth and crawled into bed. I’m getting too old for all nighters. But I refuse to miss any opportunity while living in a different country. Goodnight 2010.
Good morning 2011. I woke four hours later. I refuse to miss any opportunity in a foreign country. Elisha’s cousins, Take & Yuka, invited us to their parents’ house for new years dinner. I rushed through the morning routine and set off down the street. I picked up a bottle of wine and a bouquet of flowers. Small tokens, but I wanted to thank my gracious hosts for opening their home to us.
I should, briefly, detail New Years in Japan. This is the biggest holiday in the country. Everything closes down for at least three days. This is also an important family holiday. Most people return to their parents’ home and celebrate with their kin. Typically, people will stay awake until midnight. It is also good luck to see the first sunrise of the new year. As such, many people stay awake. Others just wake early. The final customary tradition is to visit a temple or shrine. Here individuals may pray to the local gods, receive their fortune and purchase charms. I had practiced two of the three customs hours before. I was excited to experience my third.
A long commute took me north of Tokyo and to the Ushigome’s home. We were to occupy the second floor of the house, where we all sat on a heated rug and gathered around a low table. The mother served us food for two hours. As is Japanese fashions, the servings were small, but always varied, frequent and delcious.
Sometime after dinner we, the guests, helped to clean our mess. We were intending to vacate their home so as not to overstay our welcome. However the family, primarily the mother, insisted that we stay and have a few more drinks. We were only too happy to oblige her. We stayed longer and had wonderful conversation. Everyone spoke varying levels of Japanese & English so the conversation was never dull, or quiet.
Eventually we did leave and we were escorted downstairs and out the door. I turned to the mother and father to say my thanks. “Domo arrigato gozaimasu,” I said, and gave a 90 degree bow. The preceding phrase is the most polite way to say “thank you.” It is reserved only for when someone is humbly thankful. The lower the bow you give, the more respect is meant. Thus my combined words and actions were a very serious way of giving thanks. It was my first time using the two together. Truly I was grateful.
A long, long commute returned me home. I cleaned up and lay back down on the futon, where just 12 hours before I was dead asleep. It was time to catch up on some rest.
Despite being horribly sleep-deprived, my mind and body were ready to get out of bed at 9 AM. I spent the majority of the day grocery shopping and cleaning my apartment. I also got some much needed Alex-time.
Today I did some moderate grocery shopping. That is to say, moderate shopping by American standards. I bought enough food for a full week. Many people in the store blatantly stared at me as I carried my basket to the register. Apparently they had never seen someone with four liters of milk and two loves of bread.
The gang went out again this afternoon to see a new shrine and get dinner. I resisted the temptation to tag along and stuck around the house today. I do need to keep my pocketbook in the black. But I also needed some time to myself. For the past five days, I’ve been with a person nearly all day. I am very much an extravert and I enjoy people. But every once in a while I too need to relax and recalibrate. Today was one of those days.
I have now been on holiday for eight days. I have two more days off before I return to the daily grind. However I am ready to get back now! I am growing stir crazy being kept from my daily routines! I need organization!
Another day off. I occupied the morning with cleaning and errands, followed by a long run. I’m continuing to run regularly and use it as a tool to familiarize myself with my neighborhood. I now feel confident enough with my nearby primary arteries that I can navigate relatively easily.
Today was Moto’s 29th birthday. I called him and made some plans for the evening. I met up with Moto in Machida and we set out. I had only planned on getting one beer, and then heading back home to cook dinner. However one beer quickly turned into two, which turned into dinner, which turned into bar hopping for several hours. We ended up at the Hub in Machida, where I bought Moto a few drinks, including his first Irish Car Bomb. He found it as delicious as I do. Yummy.
At one point Moto excused himself to use the restroom. I turned around and spoke with a table of young ladies. They didn’t understand hardly any English, but I was still able to get my point across. When Moto returned and sat down I turned around and winked at the girls. They started applauding and shouted “happy birthday!” Soon our entire corner of the bar joined in to clap for my friend. I looked over at Moto, he was beaming with delight and embarrassment. I let out a loud laugh from my belly and slapped him on his shoulder. To which he promptly jumped 6 inches out of his seat. I knew immediately it was not customary in Japan to have a room applaud for you, nor are people used to slaps on their back. I’m glad I can serve as Moto’s stereotypical gaijin friend.
On the walk home I picked up a cough and a sore throat. My long holiday was catching up with me.
(I added a new function to my blog where you can anonymously rate how much you like this weeks blog after reading. So please be kind, and give me a rating!)