Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Senjogahara

You're probably wondering what that word means.  It's a place in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan.  Nikko is most famously known for Toshogu Shrine, dedicated to the first Shogun of the Tokugawa line, Ieyasu, by his grandson.  It also has a beautiful mountaintop lake, waterfalls, wonderful food, nature hikes and monkeys.

Senjogahara is just one aspect of what makes Nikko great, but I went there for the first time about two weeks ago and it instantly became (probably) my favorite thing to see in Nikko.

You see, it's a marshy flatland very high up with miles of hiking trails and beautiful nature to see. 

But don't take my word for it!

Lake Chuzenji


Some waterfalls in Nikko

The road that goes through Senjogahara.

Mt. Nantai, the tallest in Tochigi.




The trail was like this most of the way, very well done.



The colors were just starting to change.

A big ole slug.

We hiked around sunset.

Some ducks in a river.



A map of the nearby mountains.
Anyway, it's a wonderful place, please go there sometime if you get the chance.  I'd like to visit during each season just to experience the different colors and sounds.

じゃあ、ね!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Starbucks Sucks! Drink 7-11 Coffee!

I doubt there are many people in the developed world that haven't had anything from Starbucks before.  Over the last decade it has become synonymous with cafe culture in Japan. Coffee is still lagging behind tea as the hot drink of choice, years and years after it was introduced here, but it's still quite popular.

Here's the thing though, I think Starbucks is pretentious, overpriced, and honestly not that good.

What it should be called.

Earlier this year, 7-11 started selling freshly brewed coffee, by the cup, and it is AWESOME! Let me break it down why.

1. Regular (R) and Large (L) sizes.  No pretentious Italian sounding, confusing names like Venti, or Grande, or whatever.  It's R size, and L Size.  Keep it simple, stupid!

All the amenities are included: cups, creamer, sugar, stirrers.

 2. It's fresh and made right when you get it! It's not sitting in a coffee machine for hours before you arrive.  The beans aren't even ground until you push the button yourself.  It's the absolute freshest that coffee can be before putting it in your mouth.

You even see the beans being sucked into the grinder.

3. 100Y!  It's one dollar! An awesome cup of hot, fresh coffee can be yours for about a dollar.  Not $3.50 for some crap that was made before you walked in.  Even the large is just $1.50. 

It's self serve, and so simple to operate.
So basically, the price, the flavor, the convenience, everything adds up to make a wonderful cup of Joe that is sold from a place that is probably more prevalent than even Starbucks! The nearest Starbucks from where I live is about an hour away by car.  The nearest 7-11 is about a ten minute walk away from my apartment.

They even have iced coffee!
Unless you like looking like a pretentious hipster, just avoid the high prices and questionable quality of Starbucks and just be like normal people who simply love coffee and get it at 7-11.  Just talking about it right now makes me want a cup and I'm actually drinking some coffee I made at home.

じゃあ、ね!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mt. Takahara, CONQUERED!

In March of 2008, two English teacher friends of mine and myself attempted (the key word here) to climb a mountain in Tochigi Prefecture that goes by the name of Mt. Takahara, otherwise known locally as Takahara San.  Mountains are revered here enough to be given the honorific title of "Mr."

Anyway, only one of the people in our group had much outdoors experience, and hindsight tells me the attempt was a foolish one.  It was WAY too early in the year to start climbing mountains as high as Takahara San, there was still a great deal of snow near the top, it was wet, cold, foggy and miserable.  To make a long story short, we didn't make it to the top and we walked back down to the bottom in shame.

That experience stuck with me and gave me a burning desire to go back and defeat the mountain.  I tried again when I was in Japan in 2010, but despite being in the Summer, it rained on the day we had planned to try again, so we had to cancel.

Last Sunday I finally climbed to the top and did it on a whim!  I went to grab some breakfast for Wife and myself, and I noticed that it was a perfectly clear day, Sunny, and just a little bit cool.  I went home and told Wife "Hey, today would be a perfect day to climb Takahara San.", so we did.  Ha.

I should say though, that there is a parking lot near the top of the mountain with access to hiking trails with some of those going to the top.  But the first time we attempted the climb, the gate to the road to this parking lot was closed, which should have given us a clue as to the condition of the mountain at the time.  On Sunday, the gate was open, and the drive to the top was long enough for me to appreciate not having to walk up it again.

There are two trails to the top that make a round-trip loop with each leg being about 2km each, which is fairly short, but it's a really vertical 2km and by the end of the trip up, we were fairly exhausted and cold.

It was a bit of a trial, we were under dressed, it was VERY windy, and our shoes were not fit for the rocky terrain, but the pictures and the satisfaction of getting to the top of the mountain (finally) made it totally worth it.  Speaking of the pictures... ENJOY!

A map of the trails from the parking lot near the top.



Most of the trail up looked like this, very vertical and rocky.

Bear cave!

Look at that view!

The little shrine at the top.






We were WAY too under dressed.

A sign post near the top.



A sign about the local flora along the trail down.

The parking lot, and viewing platform.
It was cathartic to finally reach the top but strange to do it so easily after struggling so much on the first attempt.  I would definitely recommend the climb to a wide range of nature enthusiasts, but just keep your eye on the weather. ;)

じゃあ、ね!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Enson Inoue's Walk Across Japan

As I mentioned in my previous post, sometimes interesting things just seem to fall into my lap while I'm in Japan.  Today, a very mundane task turned into a pretty cool coincidental experience, which I attribute to Japan itself.

Wife and I both have Tuesdays off work, so we usually do some odd shopping for groceries, sit around the house and take a walk, but today we needed to get some jewelry supplies and for those we had to drive to the Tobu department store in Otawara, the next town over.

We got what we needed, but on the way back my stomach was doing its best to remind me that I didn't eat much for breakfast, so I decided it would be best if we stopped by the next convenience store to get a snack and some drinks.  Well, (and I apologize for the incredibly average beginning to this story, but it's for posterity) I was in the mood for a katsu sandwich, so we stopped at the next convenience store we saw, which was a Family Mart.  However, they were restocking the shelves and there were no katsu sandwiches to be had, so we left and continued on to the next available store down the street.

As we pulled in to the 7-11, we saw a whole bunch of backpacking gear in the parking lot and around the corner, two very tan and muscular gentlemen were apparently resting from what I assumed was a long journey, judging from the gear we saw.

Me (center), Enson (right) and his travelling companion whose name I didn't catch. (sorry!)

Imagine my surprise when I got out of the car and they start speaking English, and they were speaking it at me! After a quick introduction, I discovered that the man sitting on the right is Enson Inoue, world renowned Mixed Martial Arts fighter! He told me how he and his companion were walking the entire length of Japan to spread awareness that the Tohoku region hit by the tsunami in 2011 is still a huge mess and that the people there still need lots of help and supplies.

Regular readers know that to be true, since I was just there visiting Wife's family about a month ago and I was able to see with my own eyes the destruction that was caused and how huge debris piles and radiation affect the people living there still.

This is what they are carrying, across the whole country!

Their journey is taking them from Sapporo in the North all the way down South to Kyushu in about three months time from September 5th to around November 20th.  I met them in Otawara City in Northern Tochigi and they told me it had been 21 days since they left Sapporo and that they had another two months to go... ON FOOT!  Needless to say, these guys are hardcore.

I would have offered some form of monetary assistance, but I'm broke, so I offered the only assistance I could, online awareness.  So please, check out Enson's blog and his Facebook page and spread the word about the awesome work he is doing.  You can see loads of pictures of all the nice people he has met along the way too.

For more info on Enson and his cause check out the following links.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enson_Inoue

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Enson-Inoue/178254262213276

http://www.destinyforever.com/

https://twitter.com/EnsonInoue

じゃあ、ね!

p.s., forgive my goofy hair in the picture.  I drive with the windows down...

Addendum
October 3rd, 5:15 pm

After writing this blog post and doing some proper research on Enson and his walk across Japan, I discovered something he said in an MMA forum online:

"...I've decided to add a strict rule that I can eat and drink only the food and water I can carry. The only exception is if someone gives us food or water as an offering. Also we have to find a place to sleep outdoors every night unless we are offered a place to sleep.
This will put me close to the situation they
(the Tohoku survivors) are currently in.
I will be low on supplies, having unstable sleeping quarters every night and will be depending on help from others for strength to continue."


After I read that and told Wife about it, we both felt bad for not offering any food or a place to stay, so we got some bentos (Japanese prepackaged lunches) and some bottled water and we hit the road to try and find them again.  The search only lasted about three minutes because they were having another break at a Lawson Convenience store literally less than a mile from our apartment.  Lucky!


I stole some pics from Enson's Facebook page.  いただき!

We gave them the supplies and offered them a place to sleep for the night (even though it was only about 5:00pm) and they were more than happy to accept the food, but they decided that since they had stayed in a hotel the night before, they were fresh enough to march on throughout the night.

I'm glad they enjoyed the food. :)

If you guys are reading this, がんばってね! I'm sure you'll meet plenty of friendly people willing to lend a hand along your journey.  It is Japan after all!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mushroom Hunting

I'm not sure if simply living in Japan presents me with more opportunities to do interesting things and grow as a person or if I'm actually more willing to try new things while outside my comfort zone (America), but recently it seems that almost every week I'm taking part in some new and exciting experience and "leveling up" if you'll indulge me in a little gaming vernacular.

Last Saturday I was invited by my friend Simon to participate with him and his Father-in-law in the trimming of some trees on Yaita's favorite mountain, Takahara San, who I'm sure is featured prominently all over this blog.

I accepted, not just to get out of my apartment and enjoy some of the year's best weather, but I felt that, since I enjoy the bounty of interesting stuff to see and do on the mountain, I should participate in making it look nice for others.

It turns out that the City of Yaita organizes this annual cleanup event on the first day of fall, I suppose to keep the branches from freezing in the winter and making things even more difficult come Spring, but that's just speculation.  When we got there the branches had already been cut and apparently everyone had been called in simply to put the branches into piles and carry them across a field and into an even bigger pile out of the way.

The city had organized for two buses of volunteers to come up and help, mostly the elderly, but a few youngsters like myself, and the numbers probably got into the 100+ range.  It was nice to be outside getting exercise and meeting some of the other locals, which included a city councilman whose English was surprisingly good.

After our chores were finished, which went from about 9:00-11:00 am, we grabbed a quick bite and drove to a nearby "lake", which is really just a rather large pond, and did a little canoeing with a friend of both Simon's Father-in-law and of the mountain itself.  He was Mr. Kobayashi, a self-styled "mushroom master" who according to Simon, is up on the mountain "literally every single day".  After showing him around the pond in Simon's canoe, he decided to treat us to an introductory lesson in mushroom foraging, which I learned that day was much more simple than I had initially expected.

Japan is home to hundreds of indigenous mushroom species, like most places in the world, and like most places, I'm sure, there are some you can eat and a seemingly endless number of species that will poison and kill you.  Let me make my little disclaimer here by saying that I was with a 75-year-old mountain mushroom master, telling us not only where to look but what to keep and what would kill us.  Unless you are experienced with fungi, I would recommend going with a mushroom master of your own.

Now I like mushrooms almost as much as the next guy, but I was really hoping to get some survival skills out of this adventure over something I could actually eat later.  Incidentally, Mr. Kobayashi suggested that we not eat even the good mushrooms due to the radiation in the area.  Apparently, mushrooms are nature's radiation sponges.  They soak up all nearby radiation, thus purifying the area around them, but leaving themselves as little bites of future cancer.  Mr. Kobayashi strongly suggested we refrain from eating anything we find but since he and Simon's Father-in-law were already getting along in years, eating radioactive fungi wouldn't be a problem for them, since they're probably not long for this world anyway.  Needless to say, we followed his advice.

 I learned that day that mushrooms, at least the edible ones, grow underneath pine trees.  In fact, the Japanese name for mushroom (ki no ko) literally means "tree child".  I had the most success on the ridges underneath the trees next to the road.  I also learned that mushrooms grow very quickly, replenishing what gets taken in a matter of days.  I even learned to identify boar tracks and deer scat, which were very plentiful up in the woods of the mountain.

The parking lot of "Yama no Eki", the "Mountain Station" where hikers and nature enthusiasts can rest up.

People putting branches in big piles.

Simon carrying some sticks.

This is the area we were cleaning up.

This is where all the branches ended up.

Canoeing around the "lake".

Simon, FIL, and Mr. Kobayashi.

It's a small lake, but it's in a very pretty area.

I thought I'd try my hand at recreating a Hallmark card.

The Fellowship of the Mushroom

"Eat this, don't eat this."

This is about 1/8 of the mushrooms I found that day.

All in all, it was a very good day.  The weather was as perfect as it could get (for mushroom hunting, anyway), I got some much needed exercise, I met some great people and I leveled up my foraging skills from 0 to 1.  At least if all hell breaks loose and I end up trying to survive in the mountains, I can sup on nature's special sponge, the mushroom.

じゃあ、ね!