Friday, January 28, 2011

Asakusa & The Year of the Rabbit

Kayla, Kat, Michelle, Christy, Christina and I at the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa

A few girls from work and I took a trip up to Asakusa to visit the Senso-ji Temple for the new year.  It's the year of the Rabbit and in Japanese tradition, you're supposed to visit a temple or shrine at the beginning of the new year if it's the year of your zodiac sign.  Now I'm not a rabbit, but a friend is, so we all decided to go along with her.  I was a little curious about my own zodiac sign and looked up what it means.  Here are the following personality traits represent the Rat (the 1st and most prominent of all the signs):

The Year of the Rabbit is everywhere in Japan
Forthright, tenacious, intense, meticulous, charismatic, sensitive, intellectual, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, artistic, and shrewd.  Can be manipulative, vindictive, self-destructive, envious, mendacious, venal, obstinate, critical, over-ambitious, ruthless, intolerant, and scheming.

Hmm, not sure if ALL of those traits represent me, but I can see most of them (the good ones of course)!

Locals wafting the smoke on them at the
incense burner for a healthy year
Senso-ji Temple, also known as Asakusa Kannon, is Tokyo's most sacred and spectacular temples.  The temple survived the 1923 earthquake but not World War II bombing.  It's main buildings are therefore relatively new, but follow the Edo-era layout.  While these buildings are impressive, it's the people following their daily rituals that make this place special.  The incense burner, one of the temple's focal points, is constantly surrounded by people wafting the smoke over them to keep them healthy.  The front Kaminarion Gate, "Thunder Gate", opens up to Nakamise-dori which is a long street filled with little food stands and speciality shops leading up to the temple.  My favorite food I tried that day was a fried green tea dough filled with bean paste. Actually reminded me of funnel cakes at a fair.  It was delicious!
Christina tying her "bad" fortune on the stand at the temple.
Kat was the only one out of us who got a "good" fortune.

It's also a tradition to get your fortune when visiting a temple.  Well, let's just say my fortune was NOT good at all.  It basically said that my house was going to burn down, I need to stop planning trips, I'm not going to meet the one I'm waiting for out here and I'm bound to bad health.  Well, that's just a bummer fortune isn't it!  So, I tied my fortune on the "bad fortune" stand and left every part of it at the temple.  (I finally figured out what the little white ties are at all the temples.)  You are only supposed to take the fortune with you if you want it to come true.  So hopefully in my case it didn't stay with me!

I'm a celebrity with Japanese school 
I felt really special when 3 Japanese school girls came up to me and asked, "Wir - you - take - picture - wit - us?"  (Japanese can't pronounce the L)  Apparently they really like light skinned women with either blonde or light brown hair.  They associate us with hollywood actresses.  Hey, why not!

"Thunder Gate" leading into the shops and temple

Walking through the streets with the girls
Fried dough balls... I had the green ones!!  Delicious!
Tokyo Tree and the "turd building" (Asahi headquarters) in the background
I think we should start throwing up this sign in all our pics instead of the "peace sign"!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Kandatsu Kogen Ski Trip

Niigata, Japan 

Kandatsu Kogen Ski Resort

I finally made it out on a Japanese ski trip set up by base last weekend!  A group of us went to Kandatsu Kogen in Niigata (It's a little north of Nagano in the same mountain range).  The 3 girls I went with from work were all boarding and I was the lone skier until I made it to the bus and met up with a friend from Marquette and his wife.  I ended up skiing with them all day which was a lot of fun!

It was a Japanese Winter Wonderland
When we got to the mountain, it was snowing pretty hard which filled the slopes with lots of fresh powder!  It reminded me of the time I went skiing with my family a few Christmas' ago in Wisconsin during a blizzard.  We could only see about 5-10 feet in front of us at the top of the slopes which was actually kinda nerve-racking because we didn't really know if we were going down the right run or not.  It didn't make for good picture taking at all which was a bummer, but I took what I could.

Now, I've really only skied in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Cali even though I've been skiing all my life.  And, I have to say, these runs were A LOT bigger than what I was used to.  The green were probably equal to the intermediate runs and some of the reds were close to black diamonds back home.  BUT... I figured, I kinda have to try it since I made it all the way out here.  I actually didn't do bad if I say so myself.  I was rocking it down the reds by the end of the day.  Oh man were my legs killing me by the end of the day though.  Next ski trip is either going to be Nagano or Hokkaido!  Who's in?

Tim Boston (MU alum) and I

Christina, Kayla, and I

Christina, Kayla, Kat and I hanging out before catching the bus at 0230

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Nikko Lodge

Well, this post is WAY over due!!  I went on this trip back around Thanksgiving, but hey, better late than never.
Lake Chuzen-ji, Nikko National Park

Torri gates at Lake Chuzen-ji

Amanda window shopping in Nikko
Amanda and I decided to head up there after overhearing some Americans on the train talking about a nice lodge that has an English speaking staff.  We got off to a later start that we were expecting and being the "frugal" travelers we are we decided to trek it from the train station to the lodge instead of taking a taxi.  From what we read online it was only supposed to be a 15 min walk, and that we could definitely handle.  Amanda got the directions from the lodge staff and it seemed fairly easy.  Well, an hour later, still walking uphill, and no lodge... not good!  (It's already about 11pm at this point too and not too many street lights in a rural area)  We kept calling the lodge and they said only a little further.  Finally, one of the other staff members got on the phone and told us to back to the hotel we saw a while back and wait there, he was coming to get us.  Needless to say, we were probably at least a mile or so out of the way uphill.  We missed the turn at the bottom of the hill (next to the house with all the Christmas lights... too bad they were already turned off for the night).

Kegon Falls (315ft high)
The Nikko Lodge is a quaint and cozy family run bed and breakfast that I would recommend to anyone traveling to Nikko.  It's set away from the hustle and bustle of the small city and actually is pretty easy to get to (just go during the daylight).  Wild monkeys and other local wildlife are a common sight around the lodge.  We enjoyed breakfast with a few other travelers (some who were actually from Chicago too!) and then set off for the day.

The first day there, we hopped on the bus headed into Nikko National Park to see the waterfalls and onsens (mineral baths).  It was so beautiful up there driving through the mountains and hiking to the waterfalls.  Trust me, the pictures don't do them justice!

Ryuzu Falls
Yudaki Falls (my favorite)
Alright, and about the onsen, lets just say that Amanda's and my friendship just moved to a different level!  We were already warned on what to probably expect, but we still wanted to check it out.  The lady at the onsen didn't speak any English and just pointed us in the right direction.  So of course, we were completely clueless on all the correct customs on going in an onsen.  We started undressing and walked into the bath house with a towel wrapped around us only to be greeted by two (naked) Japanese women speaking something in Japanese and motioning us to leave our towels in the locker room.  ARE YOU SERIOUS!  WOW!  Well, let's just say it was an experience.  Not really sure how else to explain it.  But on a good note, my skin did feel amazingly soft after soaking in it for awhile.
Looking out at Yumoto, a lakeside onsen town
Finally got to Yumoto... time to try an onsen!

The following day we checked out all the historical shrines and temples around town.  Here's a fun fact I didn't know... The saying "Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil", with the three little monkeys, actually originated from this town.  
Three Wise Monkeys (Bryan, Kristin, Amy)

5 story Pagoda, each story represents an element - earth, water, fire, wind, and heaven - in ascending order

Shinkyo Bridge spanning the Daiya River