Sunday, September 27, 2009

Silver Week Part Two - Izumo (with Weekly Winners)

Weekly Winners, hosted by Lotus.
Click pics for better looking larger images.

I've been away from Weekly Winners for far too long, and I've missed participating. Since it's Sunday here and Sunday there, and I have pictures to share, the timing works. No promises I can get back into the old Sunday routine for good, but I can this week, and I want to try to make a point of it more often.

Picking up where I left off last time in my Silver Week travels, next, on the way back to the Izumo train station after the lighthouse (and still long before I'd checked into my hotel and still carrying my backpack), I stopped at the awesome Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine (出雲大社). (Another good link is here.) Japan loves to rank places, and apparently this is the 2nd most important shrine in all of Japan. It's also the oldest and largest shrine still in use in Japan. Now you know. It's also my favorite shrine so far. We'll get to that in a bit.

Across the Street
Saturday, September 19, 2009 (still, long day)
I wasn't sure which way to go when I got off the bus (it runs between the train station and the lighthouse with stops along the way, including Izumo Taisha), so I wound up across the street from the actual shrine. With the power of the internetz, I now know that this was actually the Anscestral Shrine (祖霊社) part of (I think) the main shrine.

Soba Noodles
(Approaching Izumo Taisha Shrine)
The banner in the left is for Izumo Soba, a local way of doing soba noodles. I had some at the little restaurant up by the lighthouse when I had time to kill waiting for my bus, and it was really good.

Izumo Taisha Shrine
The shimenawa, straw rope, is the largest in Japan. It's 13 meters/43 feet long, and apparently, it weighs 5 tons. I'm still wrapping my mind around that.

Tossing Coins
Here's where I think this shrine is cool. For lots of folks, this shrine is about having a happy marriage. To that end, people try to toss coins into the shimenawa (rope) for good luck.
Also, when praying, instead of just clapping twice like at normal shrines, people clap four times, once for themselves and once for their partner (or hopefully a future partner).

Got Lucky
A little hard to see, but here are the coins that stuck.

I always love these wooden plaques with prayers written on them. Always. Since this is the go to shrine for love and marriage, it's no surprise that the ema reflect that.

Shrines sell strips of paper with fortunes written on them, and if you get an unlucky one, then you can tie it to a tree or to the place where everyone else tied theirs. Basically, the bad luck will stay there. I like these almost as much as the ema tradition.

Izumo Taisha Shrine Torii
Coming from the bus station initially, I think I kind of entered backwards, so instead of seeing this first, like a normal person would, I actually saw it last as I was leaving and heading to a smaller train station that would take me to the bigger train station that would take me to my hotel.
Strange conversations in fast Japanese ensued at that little station about how it would take a ridiculously long time to get to where I was going if I took the little train because of how train schedules don't match up well, which seems kind of not so genius to me, just saying. So, opting out of the taxi that the older guy at the station was recommending, I managed to instead get lucky enough (without even praying for it at the shrine) to get on a bus that did, indeed, get me to the station and one step closer to putting down my backpack (contents comprised mostly of my laptop, which kept gaining weight somehow the longer I carried it).

So, I got to the hotel (and hour away, in Yonago - 米子, because it's the only place in the area I could find an available room), and I kind of laughed that the older woman behind the desk kept referring to me as gaijin-san instead of by, um, my name. That would be like calling someone Ms. Foreigner Lady. I was too exhausted to be anything but amused. As a huge bonus, if I borrowed a modem from the front desk, I could haz internetz in my room. It was joyous. I wound down with a warm shower and a cold beer, ready to wake up early for the next day's adventure in one of my now favorite cities, Matsue. Those pictures, next post.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Silver Week Part One - Hinomisaki

Silver Week in Japan is a joyous thing that happens some years. 2009 is one of those years. Basically, it's when your regular 2 day weekend of Saturday and Sunday meet up with three days of holidays in a row on the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I had been hoping to get to Kyoto and/or Osaka and/or Nara, but since I waited too long to get started on plans, it was nearly impossible to find decent accommodation at a reasonable price. Also, I knew half of Japan would be there.

Instead, I decided to head in another direction, basically north/northwest-ish, up by the Sea of Japan side, and staying and seeing some cities in that area. Directly from Okayama Prefecture, after about 4 hours and a few trains, I arrived at my first destination, Hinomisaki (日御碕). Hinomisaki is part of the city of Izumo (出雲市) (about a 45 minute bus ride) in Shimane Prefecture (島根県), and it's where Japan's tallest lighthouse, Hinomisaki Toudai (御碕燈台) (link is in Japanese, sorry), stands. There is also a shrine right by the bus stop and on the way to the lighthouse. I hadn't back tracked to where I was staying yet, so I was carrying my backpack, with laptop inside, throughout the entire day, which somehow got heavier and heavier.

I took so many pictures that I'll be splitting this up into several posts covering the time I spent in Hinomisaki, Izumo, Matsue (*love* that city) and Yonago (didn't love that city).

Today you get Hinomisaki.

On the Train, Headed Out
Saturday, September 19, 2009
I do love how easy it is to get places in Japan.

For Izumoshi

Hinomisaki Shrine Torii

Hinomisaki Shrine Gate

Omikuji in Daruma Dolls

Island Seen Walking to the Lighthouse

(which I did not do)

Sea of Japan
(Still walking to lighthouse, and this was my first time on the "other" side of Japan, the side that is not the Pacific Ocean coast but the one facing Korea, China and Russia. Apparently, the name is currently being disputed, but for my purposes, Sea of Japan works fine.)

Hinomisaki Lighthouse

More Hinomisaki Lighthouse

Walked Too Far
I missed the turnoff where I could have gotten to the lighthouse in about 10-15 minutes. Instead, I did see amazing views, but it took me closer to an hour, which is when that backpack first started feeling heavier. When I saw this sign, I was a happy girl because it meant I'd be there soon.

Almost to the Lighthouse, the Hard Way
Almost there. And I did pay my 200 yen (roughly US $2) to go all the way up to the top. Even though I'm scared of heights. And don't love small spaces. Or steep and winding staircases. Especially while carrying a backpack.
I talked myself out of about 829 panic attacks and only took a handful of shots from the top when I got there and just wanted to be back on the ground (Japan has earthquakes, which would have sucked at that moment, I kept thinking). The few pictures I took from up top didn't turn out because I was shaking. It was beautiful. Take my word for it.
Coming back down the stairs the way I did, kind of sideways-ish, always starting with my left foot going down while my right leg supported the weight of me (and the backpack I think I've mentioned) pretty much destroyed that muscle. I didn't know it until the next day, but as I write this already 4 days later, it hurts to walk. I suppose I'm glad I went to the top of Japan's tallest lighthouse, but I'm sure there are postcards showing the view from the top, and they don't cause panic or muscle pains. I'll keep that in mind.

Got Squid?
Out of the lighthouse and back on the ground with the fresh seafood for sale.

Lighthouse, Manhole / Up, Down

Walking Back to the Bus Stop, Sea of Japan

I was shocked when I lived in Japan before and first learned about Pocari Sweat. Because, ew, sweat, right? It's actually not a bad drink at all, and it is kind of supposed to do for you whatever Gatorade does with replenishing stuff you loose from exerting yourself. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and it sounded good.

After some Pocari Sweat, I still had a good 45 minutes before the bus to the culturally important must-see shrine, Izumo Taisha (basically on the way along the bus route from the lighthouse to the station), would arrive. It would still be many hours before I'd backtrack the hour from the train station to where I could check into my hotel. And set down that heavy ass damn backpack. Since I had time and hadn't yet eaten (not expecting to take the extended scenic tour route of getting to the lighthouse), I grabbed some soba from the little shop/store near the bus stop. There I met a couple of sisters about my age who live in Tokyo and who seemed surprised that I was traveling alone and could speak any Japanese. It's funny what amazes folks, I guess, but it made for good conversation. Anyway, we exchanged cell phone email info, and we've been sending messages back and forth once in awhile. Always good to make new friends.

Next post will pick up from here with pictures from Izumo Taisha Shrine. It really was pretty cool and probably my favorite shrine so far because it's all about the lovin'. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sports Day, Last Weekend, With Injuries

I'm still and perpetually a week behind, but I have to post these since I'm traveling again (Izumo/Matsue/Yonago/Sakaiminato, if you wonder, and so far, so awesome and beautiful and with bonus internet in my hotel room that I didn't expect to be lucky enough to have!) and taking lots more pictures that I'll want to post. I've been posting some from my cell phone on Twitter (via Twitpic - look there to see some pics I've taken) as I go if you want a sneak peek.

Last weekend was Sports Day at our school. This meant a few weeks of nutty, erratic class schedules (some days with no classes at all) to fit in time to practice for the big event. Sports Day really is kind of a big deal in most Japanese schools.

Class Signs
Each homeroom decorated a sign to be used for Sports Day, and they were parked in the teachers' room a few days before the big event (scheduled for Saturday, September 12, 2009), so I grabbed this shot.

'Twas the Night Before (Instead of the Night of)
Saturday, September 12, 2009
We were supposed to have an enkai (party, with drinks) after a successful Sports Day. Except that it rained the day it was supposed to happen. So we had a party with mostly only light drinking or no drinking so that we could all get up early on Sunday for the re-scheduled Sports Day. I was kind of bummed because people are more likely to talk to the scary foreigner (me) when they are a little tipsy. Still, it was a fun night, and just the environment seemed enough for more folks to chat with me. Of course, there was an abundance of sushi and other yummables.

Pretty Little Backdrop
Sunday, September 13, 2009
The day the Sports Day actually took place. I never tire of the views around town or behind my school. Simply amazing.

Remember those signs above? Here they are representing each class.
At this point the kids are marching in place. Everything is perfectly choreographed. When they are standing in lines, they are perfectly straight and even perfectly spaced so that even looking from a diagonal view, you see straight lines.
(And, yes, I've blurred out faces. On the very rare occasions that I have reasons to post pictures that include my students, I will not show their faces. It's a privacy thing.)

Japan really doesn't do a whole lot of flag waving (click hinomaru link above), especially compared to my home country where we are all flag, all the time. Sports Day is always a good enough reason for Japan to do her flag thing. It comes right back down after the event, though, and then makes another brief appearance for graduation day in March.

Whistle While You Work

Gearing Up for My Favorite Event
I have no idea what this event is called, but it struck me as funny, and it had to be my favorite event to watch. Basically, three students hoist a fourth student up (one person stands in the middle, then the two on toward the back of each side put one hand on that middle person's shoulder to create a something like a saddle and the other hand down to create someting like stirrups, all to support that fourth person who sits up top, wearing a cap), and they go around trying to knock the cap off of the other teams' person in the saddle. If that makes any sense. Anyway, it was cool and fun to watch.

More of My Favorite Event, Action Stage

I so wish I didn't have to blur the faces. Just know that the students closer to the top are smiling maniacally, while those closer to the bottom have expressions mixed with joy and strain. In any case, it was incredible.

Ooh, Pretty Colors

And so, an awesome Sports Day came to an end with the following Monday and Tuesday off in exchange for teaching on Saturday because of cancelation due to rain and then the real event on Sunday. Well, that was almost the end of Sports Day, but not before I physically injured someone. Which was horrible, all around.

See, we were taking down the big tents, and I grabbed hold of a bar the wrong way so that the bar popped out of it's pole base thingy and landed pretty much in a teacher's eyeball. Or would have if he hadn't have been wearing glasses. Glasses that were now damaged. He spent the next half hour with an ice pack over his eye instead of doing whatever all the other teachers were busy doing. I felt beyond terrible.

I said more than once that I was sorry, but it's difficult with language and cultural barriers to feel like you are responding appropriately sometimes. When it was time for me to leave, I wanted to do some kind of something, so for lack of any other great ideas, I grabbed a bottle of Coke from under my desk (we'd all received drinks from a former teacher or something in honor of Sports Day?), and I tried to hand it to the poor bastard that had let me "help" with anything involving metal poles.

He refused to take it and said something in Japanese about not making such a big deal out of it, or something maybe along those lines, possibly, and I couldn't tell if he was annoyed (probably) or just trying to say not to worry about it (sounded more like the former, actually). I really had no clue. I just knew that I was on the verge of tears both worried and embarrassed and wanted to do something and that since he wouldn't let me, the whole thing seemed even more awkward than I thought possible. I wound up setting the bottle of Coke on his desk, apologizing again and being grateful that it was time for me to disappear into the floor go home.

As recently as this past Friday, almost a week later, he still has a tiny bandage covering a small cut by his eyebrow, but he appears to still have both eyeballs, and we both act like nothing happened (which sounds more to me like how you'd handle a one night stand than a bodily injury, but after the Coke thing, I'm rolling with however he wants to play it, and he clearly doesn't want me to mention it. His eye, his call.).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pizza Night Weekend

Playing catch up a week behind again. Last weekend was a glorious event, Pizza Night on Friday night with our group of new JETs (and one that`s not new) in a small town called Wake (pronounced not like what you do in the morning but more like wah-kay) here in Okayama Prefecture. Awesome pizza, really, at a place called Pizza King, and this blog over here does a great job talking about the pizza in more detail and even showing pictures of how to get there (worth a look, even if you aren`t going). It`s funny how the place is kind of in the middle of nowhere. I`ll be making the trip from my middle of nowhere to that middle of nowhere at least a few more times. Any pizza here without tuna, mayo and corn is a thing of joy, but this place is really pretty damn good even when not comparing it to such travesties.

I`d only packed a bag for one overnight, but it turned into a whole weekend of fun after Pizza Night. That happens. There were pictures. Here they are, some before the big night.

My First Taiko Drums Night
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
I mentioned a few posts back that I`d joined a taiko drum group. I *love* the sound of taiko drums. If only it sounded that good when I play. I totally suck and often hold up the whole group while the main guy who has been doing it for 25 years wonders aloud what we should do so that I get it and stop sucking. So far, nothing has worked. I`ve been twice, and it was at least better than the first time. I have little hope for improvement, but just like with singing karaoke, I never let my lack of talent stop me from attempting to be musical. Plug your ears.

Pretty Little Sunset in Tiny Town
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Train Station Sunset
(Headed Out on Pizza Night)
Friday, September 4, 2009

Pizza. King. Indeed.

Purikura Heaven
"Purikura" is short for "print club," where you take photobooth pictures with cutesy stuff on them, and then they print out as small stickers to trade with your junior high school aged sometimes adult friends. It was popular even 14 years ago when I last did this JET thing. Now it`s just more advanced with a dizzying array of booths all in one place and a gazillion options to decorate the pictures you`ve taken. I didn`t intend to turn up here, but after pizza last Friday night and staying over with friends (and a fair amount of beer) as intended, a few of us decided to hang out in the city (Okayama City) for awhile on Saturday. One of our group dragged us in here. I didn`t exactly kick and scream.

Kibichuo, Okayama Prefecture, Japan
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Continuing the trend of coloring outside the lines of my plans, after Okayama City, I went back to another of the JETs towns, way remote, by car, up in the mountains and completely gorgeous. We hung out and had a nice girls` night and went to the local nature park the next day. I have to say, the scenery reminded me a lot of Oregon. And I did say so. Probably a lot. I miss waterfalls.

Kibichuo Nature Park

Almost Home
After the waterfalls we drove the hour or so into Kurashiki (already talked about one area of this city here and here). I could easily catch a train from there, and it`s also where there happens to be an actual mall. Japan doesn`t have a lot of those. AEON Mall is a 10 minute bus ride from the train station (which has a Starbucks by it, just saying), so after a little mall time, I headed back to my tiny town, and this was the view from the train. I always love the view heading home from wherever the weekend has taken me.

No big plans this weekend. It`s the first weekend that I`ll actually sleep in Tiny Town because my school is having Sports Day on Saturday (September 12th), so I`ll need to stick around. The good news is that there is an enkai after that, so it will be a good chance to talk to more of the teachers once alcohol kind of fuzzes the language barrier and blurs some of the shyness (on both sides, but more theirs). Then I have Monday off from school. I have no idea where I should go/what I do, but I need to go/do something.

Looming larger is the pressure to come up with some plans for Silver Week the weekend after this plus the following Monday through Wednesday (so September 19 - 23) that are all holidays. Lots of places will be insane with travelers and hotel prices higher than normal, so my initial thoughts of trying to get to Osaka and Kyoto are sounding better for just a few 3-day weekends kind of thing, which leaves me scrambling for some plan to go somewhere with all those fabulous days off. Ah, the stress...

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Pirate Festival

I'm a whole weekend behind in posting these since it's already Sunday again, but after spending August 27th in Hiroshima, then the 28th at Miyajima, we headed to an island in the Seto Inland Sea called Yuge (technically now merged as part of Kamijima, Ehime Prefecture). Another JET lives there, and her island is next to the bigger island of Innoshima where the Pirate Festival was held on the 29th. I've been to many festivals in Japan since Japan loves a good festival, but this one was probably one of my favorites.

On the Ferry, Onomichi to Yuge
Friday, August 28th, 2009

Yuge Manhole Cover

Matsubara Beach, Yuge
Saturday, July 29th, 2009
Before the Pirate Festival's festivities in the evening, we spent a few hours in the morning at this beautiful beach. The water was warm, and ours, a group of four, was the only group there. It was like being in our own private paradise. Amazing. Truly.

Yummies at Pirate Festival on Innoshima Island

French Dog, American Dog
Whatever the name, the corn dog is a thing of joy, anywhere.


Pirate Festival Torch

Japanese Pirates!

About to be Piratical

Me, Pirates, Happy, Yay

Pirate with Guns

My night shots never turn out all that great, but imagine about nine million similar shots, and you'll know what other pictures I took that night. It was truly spectacular.

Seen on Yuge while walking back to the ferry port for the return home after an awesome 4 day trip.

Maybe I'll stay more caught up this week and can tell you about the awesome pizza place I went to this past weekend and how that turned into a whole weekend instead of one night of fun. Hanging out with our awesome group of new JETs with lots of pizza, beer and conversation was exactly what I needed to lift out of the funk. Good times. More on all that next post.