If the title wasn’t enough, HAPPY NEW YEAR! I miss you all back home, hope things are well.
I’m going to kick this post off with a party! A $70 year end staff party hosted through my base school at some fancy Japanese restaurant. Here we go…
After aimlessly wandering the streets around the train stop this bounenkai was supposed to be at, I had the good fortune to encounter a coworker outside of the building I suspected to be my destination. After confirming said suspicions, we headed into this fancy pants place. The second floor was completely reserved for my school, and upon entering I was directed to pick a number (to decide where I would be seated). Hopelessly wishing to be seated near people who spoke English, I drew the number ’11’, which seated me at the opposite end of the room. Blessing in disguise! As fate would have it, right across from me sat the student teacher who works at my school, who happens to be studying English, and next to her was the gentleman who, aside from the English teachers I work with, is probably the most competent English speaker at this school (much to my surprise). On top of all this, to my right was a good man who happened to have a vigorous appetite, and was easily able to liberate me from all of my food related woes.
It was a great time, but there was waaaaaay too much food. There is no way I could ever eat that much, even if it were pizza. Seriously a huge assortment of food. The dishes were served one at a time, but they just didn’t stop coming. Needless to say, I definitely appreciated the assistance of my champion eater neighbor. Food I ate: Eggplant (good), Tofu thing (alright), Spinach thing (good), Gelatinous peppery thing (alright), Lotus root (good), salad (good), whitefish (good), mackerel (alright), salmon (meh), eel (abhorrently disgusting), meat plate (beyond delicious), noodles (I was so full but they were good), brownie (yum), ice cream with what I think was red bean paste (meh), beer (good), and sake (good). Right…too much food.
After 3 hours of endless food, drinks, and delightful conversations, the bounenkai came to an end, and we all headed outside. Despite the fact that I planned to go snowboarding early the next morning, I lingered in hopes of finding an after party of sorts. I was rewarded with two options: 1. join the girls and go to a cafe to presumably drink coffee, or 2. go to an izukaya of sorts with the gents and drink more. Seeing as how I hate coffee, the choice was pretty easy (all of this was a bad idea when my financial situation is taken into account).
The after party was pretty fun, and many jokes were had, but I think a bit of a misunderstanding led to a running joke that has since left the nights festivities and bled into staff room life (I thought this wasn’t supposed to happen). When they asked me how many girlfriends I had back in states, they were surprised with the number I gave them for my answer, and called me a playboy (which I vehemently denied). Perhaps they thought that the number of girlfriends I gave them were all at the same time? Either way, they started calling me ‘Horny Champion’ and I’m 98% sure they don’t quite realize what they are saying. I actually had someone come up to me today and call me ‘horny champion’, AT WORK. But how do you explain the actual implications of what they are saying, who do you explain it to? This is going to prove to be a difficult issue to rectify. Sigh….
As I mentioned, the next day was a snowboarding warm up trip (before going to Nagano) at a place called Biwako Valley. It’s only about an hour or so away by train, and is relatively cheap to get to. So, hangover in tow, I woke up early and headed out to take my first crack at boarding in Japan. Turns out it’s just like boarding in the states, except that the handy lift tickets I’m used to aren’t a thing here, and I found myself needing to purchase an armband mounted lift ticket holder.
After spending some time with the beginners, another ALT and myself headed towards some steeper slopes, and it was in the blizzard at the top of the mountain that I concluded my lack of hat, neck warmer, and goggles may not have been the best idea, and successfully formed my first ice helmet.
It took nearly all of lunch to defrost. Anyways, after buying all that stuff I needed, we headed back out into the blizzard to get as many runs in as possible. Due to poor visibility paired with foggy goggles, I can honestly admit that this was not the most favorable ski trip of my life. Eventually we headed home, intent on wrapping the night up with pizza and clubbing, because…..well just because. It was one guy’s last night of the year in Japan so…ya. My personal plan was to go home, eat pizza, take a bath, then head out to the club. I only accomplished 1 of the 3 tasks, and woke up on my couch the next morning to a still full, warm, temperature regulated bath. Oops.
So then Nagano happened. For those of you who don’t know, Nagano is the place where the 1998 winter olympics took place, and it’s a bit famous for it’s mountains and ski slopes.
We took an express train bound for Nagano out of Kyoto station, and after a 4 hour train ride we reached our destination (kind of). We missed the shuttle bus we had hoped to catch by about 5 minutes, and decided to kill some time at a cafe. We ditched the first place on account of smell, and the second place we tried ended up taking us through a tiny 2 story bookstore (with luggage and snowboard in tow) to a miniscule (and full) cafe. We found a good place on the third try. After a short rest, we hopped on the bus, and headed for our hostel.
The hostel we went to was called K’s House and it was nothing like what I was expecting. This place was awesome! Look at it through the link above and you’ll see what I mean. The people who ran the the hostel were exceptional as well, and they had an unbelievable adorable little 1-ish year old named Amo who was probably the cutest kid ever (We played with her a fair bit).
The night we arrived, we ate this delicious steak:
then went to the onsen. For those of you who don’t know, and onsen is basically a hot spring kind of deal mixed with being a public bath. I know that sounds a bit odd to those of you back home, but skinny dipping apparently isn’t really a big deal around here. So you go into a locker room, strip, take a shower in the shower area (super important) and head into the bath. Usually the baths are segregated, there’s a Men’s side and a Women’s side. On the men’s side at this place there were three baths, and one of them was outside. Seeing as how it was super cold out, and there was snow everywhere, we opted for the outside bath….BECAUSE THAT’S AWESOME. So awesome in fact, that we went there every night as a result.
The next morning was Christmas! Merry Christmas! We had a lazy morning, but ate eggs and toast for breakfast. This is what it looked like outside:
I got that white Christmas I wanted
Next was snowboarding. Wow. Let me preface this by saying it was the PERFECT day for snowboarding. It was incredibly clear, and the slopes weren’t incredibly busy. I spent the first half of the day with the newbies, and cut loose for the second half. Satisfied with my progress on the greens, I headed up this incredibly high gondola:
Don’t sit on this side if you’re afraid of heights. Also…oops.
and hit my first ‘red’ of the day. Here in Japan a green is the easiest (like a green circle back home), a red is intermediate (like a blue square back home), and a black is expert (like a black diamond back home). OR SO I THOUGHT. It turns out that the red here is more akin to the hardest black diamonds Wisconsin has to offer (which I guess shouldn’t have been a big surprise) and going down the steepest slope and narrowest run I had ever encountered in my life took quite a bit out of me.
This sign really scared me
I was exhausted by the end of that run. Realizing that I realllllllllly needed to work on my technique before trying that again, I got started on learning not to suck at riding fakie and doing jump turns, which was a surprisingly successful and productive decision.
We caught dinner at a Pizzakaya (haha cause… pizza…and..izakaya….get it?) where I had my Christmas ham…(on a pizza), then hit the Onsen.
If I thought Christmas day was magnificent, I was sorely mistaken. The day after Christmas (which I learned is called ‘boxing day’) blew Christmas out of the water, hands down. It was the first full day of boarding, and the practice I had invested time in on Christmas really paid off. I did that run that destroyed me the other day like…7 times (I should point out that round trip is about half an hour, and it takes longer to get down than up). This run was without a doubt the most enjoyable slope I have ever had the opportunity to board. The snow was perfect, the crowd wasn’t too thick, the weather was phenomenal, and the difficulty was manageable after getting back in the swing of things. Here’s a picture from the top:
Awesome, so awesome. The next day was a big foggy (see below), and it was a fun experience getting lost at the top of the mountain due to poor visibility. The end of the day consisted of trying my first black course in Nagano (which was referred to as the ‘Snow Diving Course’ whatever that means), which was pretty steep. The slope was at a 34 degree angle, which I know doesn’t sound like much, but take into consideration that the steepest course at Happo One (where the Olypmic Alpine skiing event was held) is 35 degrees. The steepest course in Nagano is 45 degrees (fun fact). IT WAS STEEP OK?!
I don’t know which was the cliff of doom is.
The last day in Nagano was kind of a veg day. We sat around and did nothing important, and it was incredibly relaxing. It ended a bit hasty however, as our dinner took so long to arrive that we had to practically inhale it and rush for the bus. Our NIGHTbus. This nightbus (I’ve learned) was a very cramped and uncomfortable overnight trip that took about 7 hours, with a few stops, delivering us straight to Kyoto. (On the bright side it was cheap)
I got into town early on the morning of the 29th, headed home and took a nap. After sleeping for a few hours, I woke up, cleaned my apartment, bought a futon, and headed to Kansai airport to meet Bart (my brother-in-law), and join him in waiting for my sister to arrive. Her plane landed at 10:35, and we somehow miraculously managed to catch the last train at 11:09 bound for Kyoto. Luckyyyyy. We got home, and pretty much immediately passed out.
Whew, this is a lot of typing.
Part 2: The Visit
We woke up early the next morning (I slept until about 7) to watch the Bears game on TV (I streamed it). Since I somehow managed to purchase groceries the previous day, we were able to make pancakes and eggs as we watched the game, and it would have been the perfect morning if the Bears hadn’t gone and lost (at least they’ve been avenged). Without a solid plan in mind, I took Jen and Bart out on the ‘Matt’s Morning Commute’ tour. It was here that they got to see what I consider Japan’s lowest bridge over a walkway:
People ride bikes and mopeds under this, for serious
I then took them to a Uni Qlo store, where Jen bought a fancy new packable down coat. I also showed them a sega game center, at which Bart won some strange flavored cheeto thing, and we ran into one of my students (oops). Next it was off to Daigo Station (on the Subway Tozai Line), where I showed them a couple of my schools, as well as my favorite recycle shop in the world. After that, we headed out on a quest to find 回転寿司 (Kaiten zushi) which is conveyor belt sushi. It took forever to find, and just as we were about to give up, we spotted it across the street. Sigh. Anyways, we headed next to the Gion District, where I took them to see the Yasaka Shrine:
Like most big shrines in the area, they were setting up shop for the big rush of visitors that come around for ‘Hatsumoude’, which is a tradition where people go to a shrine (usually with their families) and pray for the new year. From Yasaka shrine, we walked over to Kiyomizu Temple. The road to Kiyomizu is a very narrow walkway with many small shops and confectioneries selling sweets and nifty little Japanese souvenirs. It’s along this route to Kiyomizu that we were graced with the appearance of some Maiko (I think…Apprentice Geisha’s). The second one we saw may have been a full fledged Geisha, but I’m not an expert on the topic.
This day was a bit exhausting, so we headed back to my apartment for a quick breather before going to yakiniku at Chifaja (I’ve posted about this before, it’s the one where you grill your own meat). We chose the medium course, all you can eat and all you can drink, and spent the next 90 minutes in heaven. We even ventured out a bit and ate heart, tongue, and diaphragm (diaphragm is super delicious). Full of drink and food, we headed home. The next morning was a lazy one, and we took our sweet time preparing for the day’s adventures. After a late (and tiny) breakfast, we grabbed some snacks and headed for Fushimi Inari Taishi:
Probably the best picture I’ve ever taken
We wandered around a bit, got lost, and eventually backtracked our way to the entrance. It was really a magnificent place. One path that we took had a bamboo forest on the left, and a deciduous forest on the left, which was a neat sight to behold. We accidentally visited a grave site, and Jen started her celebrity status in Japan, when a random girl asked to take a picture with her:
She geeked out when Jen threw up the peace sign
On the way back to the train station, we stopped by a street takoyaki vender. Takoyaki is Japanese for Grilled (yaki) Octopus (tako). Much to Bart’s misfortune, I forgot that the food stays remarkably hot right after it’s cooked, and needs time to cool off. This is when I taught Jen and Bart about the Japanese term, ‘Neko-jita’ which means ‘cat tongue’, which apparently implies the food is too hot to eat. As the takoyaki experiment failed miserably, we decided to head to Yodobashi Camera, which is this crazy huge store, for lunch. In Japan, it’s been my experience that many places for fine authentic foods are located usually in the same place. Some of which might even be on the top floors of department stores or malls. It was on the 6th floor of Yodobashi Camera that I took them to try Kushi Katsu, which deep fried everything on sticks. It’s pretty good, but also a lot of fried food to take in at once. After that we headed back to the apartment to rest up before the New Years celebration.
Soooooo, for New years we headed over to another ALT’s apartment for some drinking games and pregaming. After drinking probably a bit too much here, Jen, Bart, and I headed to find a club to celebrate New Years at. We ended up running into some people on the street, one of with which was originally from Palatine (believe it or not) and went to a new club called ‘Ibiza’ with them which was pretty fun. After a somewhat lackluster countdown (compared to home) we shot off to the bar called Ing, where we wrapped up our night before catching a taxi home.
New years day was pretty restful, and we spent the whole morning sitting around watching movies and relaxing. Around 4pm or so, another friend who was visiting named Adam showed up. As a group we headed into Kyoto to do some shopping, and see the Teramachi shopping area. It was here that a member of our party accidentally purchase two small pieces of jewelry for $187.00, as opposed to $18.70. They made us wait a long time to reverse that transaction. A curious note, in Japan many stores have a mystery bag thing that you can buy for a certain amount of money that may or may not have some special items inside. From the looks of it, they are almost all worth their cost, but sometimes people get lucky. I guess this is a new years thing, kind of cool.
After some wandering and searching, we happened across an okonomiyaki place, and I finally got an opportunity to have Jen and Bart try this delicious mix of food that I have come to love:
We headed back afterwards, and entertained ourselves playing some light card games and drinking sake (which was really good). Thursday morning we bummed around for a while until we were all packed up and ready to go. Despite the fact that their plane took off the ext day, it was a flight so early that it would be impossible to get to the airport from my apartment before the flight departed. As a result, Jen and Bart had to spend a night at the airport hotel in Osaka. Our trip into Osaka was a bit hectic to start. We spent waaaay too much time looking for a Coco Ichibanya (Japanese curry) for lunch, but still had a great meal. Afterwards we did some browsing at the Namba City Takashimaya. Namba City is this massive partially underground shopping district area around the Namba stations in Osaka, and the Takashimaya is the giant store full of designer outlets like Gucci..and..uhhh….Luis Vitton….and…those….other designer people.
Right. So we headed to Shinsaibashi next to visit Amerikamura. I’ve mentioned this place in my Halloween post, but as a quick refresher, it’s basically like American-town, except more Japanese. There is a lot of interesting fashion here, and interesting shops that bleed out onto the street full of a grand variety of things. It was really the perfect place to wrap up their visit, and was a lot of fun. From here we met up with Blake and Naoko (neighbors) back at Namba and went to a Torikizoku to have some grilled chicken and beef kabobs, which were delicious. After dinner, Jen, Bart, and I headed to wrap up the night with one hour of all you can drink Karaoke! It started a bit lame, but once we started picking random Japanese songs and singing English lyrics to the lame music videos, things picked up fiercely. I showed them the AKB heavy rotation song, and we ended the night with some Rick Astley. We then hurried to the station, got the tickets and I bid farewell to my sister and brother-in-law, as they hopped on the train for the airport. Twas a sad goodbye for me. I then trained my way back to my apartment and spent the next day doing absolutely nothing. The following morning Adam and I had french toast and watched the Orange Bowl, then he headed off to Nagoya, and I vegged out until Monday, when classes resumed.
And that, my friends, concludes what will hopefully be the longest blog post of my life.