Imagine, if you will, a grown man, approximately 30 years old. Now imagine him, running across a beach.
Now add an incredible downpour, take his clothes, and picture him leaping over suddenly-gouged runoff channels in the sand. Yep that’s me.
Last Saturday night I went to Imabari, a city near Matsuyama, for salsa night at a club there. They’ve recently moved; the new location was taken over from a burlesque revue (which I had no idea existed around here), so it was much bigger and brighter than the old hole-in-the-wall location and I was excited to see it.
Unfortunately, Yuko had already made plans with friends from work, so I went stag with Kevin. Manuel and a mutual friend of theirs rounded out the foursome, and Manuel drove us all in his minivan.
As the dancing was winding down, Kevin reminded me that I still hadn’t been camping on the beach, and he and Manuel both happened to have their camping gear in the car.
It seemed like a great idea at the time.
We left the club a little after 2am and stopped at a convenience store to get some supplies. By the time we finished setting up the tents around 4:30am, the sun’s first rays were just peeking over the eastern horizon, and the first small water droplets were falling pleasantly around us. In fact, I commented that the nice patter might help us sleep well for our anticipated day of fun, sun, and barbequeing.
Unfortunately, that small patter grew to a heavy drizzle, then a deluge. Manuel’s tent had not only been leaking while he slept, but it proved better at retaining water than shedding it, leaving everything inside soaked through. The tent I shared with Kevin was a little better off, we only soaked up a bit of water where Kevin’s lanky frame stretched the tent’s seams by his feet.
In the morning, Manuel was hell bent on getting off the beach as soon as possible. Because all his stuff was already soaked, it didn’t matter that he was taking down his tent in the pouring rain.
And because he was our ride, Kevin and I were faced with the difficult question of how best to keep our stuff dry while moving it from the beach to the car.
We eventually accepted the fact that it wasn’t going to let up any time soon. However, we only had the clothes on our backs, and didn’t want them to get drenched while we disassembled the tent and moved everything to the car.
Both of us being boys on an otherwise-deserted beach, we decided to strip down to our underwear and pack everything in the plastic shopping bags from the night before.
Cue wet, naked beach running.
After that, it was pretty easy. With our stuff safely in the car, Kevin and I even took a few minutes to jump in the sea. Heck, we were already naked and soaked, why not? The water was surprisingly warm compared to the cool late-summer rain falling around us, and unusually non-salty because of the downpour, but a few honks from the car reminded us not to stay too long.
Would I do it again? Probably not on purpose.
I’m glad to have the adventure, though. =)
This Sunday I walked in the Matsuno Tougenkyou Marathon, which translates to something like “Matsuno’s Fairytale Garden Marathon,” so named because the route took us through lots of blooming cherry blossoms. I only did the 10k instead of the half marathon (20k) on offer, but I felt like I could have kept going for at least another 5k.
I walked most of it because my knee doesn’t let me do much running. On the day though, I took 800mg of Ibuprofen and felt good enough to run on some of the downhill sections. As Rick sagely pointed out before the race, everyone gets caught up in the moment, no mater what your intentions.
I was a little worried about going over the time limit because I was only walking while everyone else would be running. On the day though, I actually saw people walking the half marathon, and a couple of the ladies from our own MSP Mob even stopped a couple times to take pictures.
If I do it again next year I’ll have to get some better shoes, because my old clunkers (~6 years old) really left my feet sore the next day.
Even still, I ended up finishing at one hour and fifteen minutes; fast enough to not be last, and slow enough to have enjoyed the scenery. 😉
Some of you may be surprised to learn that there’s a ski area not too far from Matsuyama. My friend Chise was kind enough to invite me to go with her and another friend of hers for the last weekend of the season, and she drove the three of us up in her minivan. I hadn’t been skiing in a long time, and we’d been trying to get a trip together for a while, so I was excited.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I knew it was the last weekend of a pretty small ski area (about the size of Ski Lee in Vegas, if that helps), so I was expecting slush, some bare patches, and some closed trails. I was not at all disappointed.
Don’t think it wasn’t fun though (despite the continuous light rain). It was neat exploring a new ski area, even though only one run of one lift was open. Also, Kuma Ski Land has been optimized for automated skiing, and they’ve done a pretty good job reaching that goal, so my geeky interest was piqued.
Of course I don’t have my skis here in Japan, so I used the vending machine on the outside of the main lodge to buy a ticket for a rental package including skis, boots, and poles. I’m glad I was there with a native Japanese speaker, because the process of buying a lift ticket was a little more involved than I thought.
The lifts are controlled by automated machines that read your RF tagged plastic lift pass. You touch your lift pass to a panel that reads it, and assuming it’s valid, opens the gate for you to get in line for the lift. Because it’s all handled by computers, they can sell lift passes for specific amounts of time, which I thought was a neat idea. Also, the electronic encoding of the tickets means less gaming the system. I’ve known people to print their own season passes for ski areas, and with a system like Kuma’s, you’d need something a lot more sophisticated than a nice scanner and printer to get past their electronic gatekeeper.
They also had a big group bingo game, which I thought was a neat promotion. Every lift ticket got you a bingo card, and prizes ranged from six-packs of beer to oven mitts (what I got), and I think they even had a Game Boy DS up there.
There are a couple of other ski areas in the region I’d like to explore. Maybe I can convince Chise to drive us out for a reunion tour. I’ll keep you posted. =)
News flash: Yuko and I will be in Las Vegas for New Year’s. We’re both leaving on December 26th, but because I managed to get more time off than her, she’s coming back January 4th, and I’m coming back January 15th.
This will be Yuko’s second time in Las Vegas (and first time with a native), so we started putting together a list of things we have to do and see in her few short days in town. Here’s what we have so far. Feel free to comment or make suggestions!
Shooting (she’s never even seen a real gun)
Meet my friends (and see where they live, if possible)
Clubbing (Japanese clubs are very different affairs)
Autocross/track day (wanted to, but I don’t think we’ll have the opportunity)
Cirque du Soliel (If you can hook us up with tickets to any show, even though I’ve seen Mystere three times, let me know)
Strip club (She’s semi-interested… anybody want to go with?)
Desperado roller coaster (we rode a motion simulator in Kobe, so we’ll ride the real thing when we drive in from LA)
Stratosphere (low on the list because she’s been there, but hasn’t ridden the rides)
Hofbrauhaus (a totally unique experience outside of Austria)
Paymon’s (Mediterranean food is totally unavailable in this part of Japan)
Taco Bell (sounds silly, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told her about my random cravings)
Kung Fu Plaza Thai Restaurant (best Thai food I’ve found in Vegas, endorsed by my only Thai friend, Pauline)
Christmas lights drive in a nice neighborhood (again, totally not a Japanese thing)
UNLV (quick campus tour)
Western High School, LVA (quick perimeter tours will suffice)
Congregation Shaarei Tefilla (where I had my Bar Mitzvah)
Shopping at Fashion Show (unless there’s a better location for high end brand browsing now)
Fremont Street (if they’re still running the zip line, because that just looks cool)
Metro Pizza (Japanese pizza is both expensive and crappy)
Salsa dancing (to compare what’s available in each area)
Sushi (medium low on the list, just for novelty’s sake)
I know it looks like a lot, but much of it is just driving around town. Even still, I’m sure there’s plenty I’m forgetting. What else should we try to cram in? =)
Yesterday, Yuko and I took a one day trip to see Himeji castle near Kobe. We chose Silver Week to do so because I don’t have many consecutive days off right now at my new job, so the five day break (four for me…) seemed an obvious time to travel. Also, they’re going to be doing five years’ worth of restoration starting next month, so I figured I should get on it before they put up the scaffolding. Silver Week happens sporadically (once every five to ten years-ish) when national holidays and the stars align (not kidding- one of the holidays is the autumnal equinox). The name comes from the desire of Japanese commercial interests to capitalize on the entertainment money spent during Golden Week every April.
Our trip was originally going to be a two day trip, but as every hotel Yuko called was completely booked (including capsule hotels, though I later discovered she hadn’t tried any love hotels), we shortened it to one day. Almost exactly twenty four hours in fact, as we caught the highway bus at 6:00am on Monday, and returned on the overnight bus at 5:52am this morning.
Anyway, it was pretty sweet. We arrived in Kobe at about 10am, and went straight to Himeji castle. One of the highlights of the trip for me was eating lunch at Subway before going to the castle. Matsuyama doesn’t have any sandwich shops, and I really miss being able to get a sub sometimes.
Never underestimate Japanese people’s ability to spontaneously form a line. I guess the throng that showed up because of the national holiday was a lot more than normal, so they had to control the number of people inside the castle at once. As visitors entered the grounds from the main gate, they sort of spontaneously started congealing and slowing down to form a line. Being American, I insisted on seeing what the front of the line was up to before joining the back end of it, a trip that satisfied my curiosity but cost us about 15 spaces in line.
I don’t know many Japanese ghost stories, but one that I’d heard before coming to Japan was of the servant girl Okiku who was betrayed, murdered, and thrown down a well. I was pleasantly surprised to find Okiku’s well on the grounds of Himeji Castle.
Even once we were inside the castle grounds, the large number of people visiting the castle on the same day created a remarkably long line to actually get inside the castle building. They set it up very much like a Disneyland ride line, where you go through one waiting area thinking that you’re almost to the front, only to turn the corner and find that there’s another area full of people waiting.
The castle itself provided a commanding view of the city surrounding it, of course.
Many of the walls inside had hooks for weapons and gunpowder bags.
I found the architecture really neat. It takes huge wooden beams to support a six story castle, and they were definitely in evidence. I was a little surprised to learn that the current form of Himeji had never been used in a war, so all of the intricate battlements constructed remain essentially untested.
After the castle, we went to Koko-en garden just outside the main gate. They have nine different styles of Japanese gardens on the grounds, which I would have given a pass, but Yuko was interested. The gardens were very serene and beautiful, to be sure, and they had some landscape art installations that were interesting. It was near the end of a very long day though, and I was tired from all the walking we’d done, so it was hard for me to be as appreciative as I might otherwise have been.
No trip to Kobe would be complete without a steak dinner, so we stopped by “ステーキランド”, the very appropriately named “Steak Land” restaurant near Sannomiya station. We both ordered one of the less-expensive dinner sets, but let me tell you, it was easily the best steak I have ever had. They cook on teppan grills in front of the customer (think Benihana) using only the most basic of ingredients: meat, salt, pepper, butter, and oil. The steaks there come with two light dipping sauces, adding a subtle flavor of garlic or soy sauce, but the steak easily stood by itself. My steak was so tender that when I poked it with one of my chopsticks, it cut a little circular hole through the surface of the steak, but the meat still had a very pleasing texture in the mouth. Absolutely exquisite, I tell you. While we were eating, another couple at the same table ordered shrimp, and it was so fresh that it was actually alive as the chef put it on the grill, its little legs moving around, huffing for its last few breaths of suffocating air.
After dinner, we spent our last few hours in Kobe on the boardwalk called Harbor Land (“ハーバーランド”). It was a surprisingly American affair, with an open-air mall atop a parking garage and restaurants, replete with fair-type attractions like a ferris wheel, kiddie rides, crane games, and a playground. One interesting attraction held two “3-D” roller coaster magic motion pods. The experience was 3-D by way of a helmet covering the user’s eyes with two small screens filmed from two video cameras in the front seat of a few famous rides, including the Desperado at Buffalo Bill’s. After riding, I can tell you that it’s fun, but not nearly as exciting as the real thing. It’s kind of like a roller coaster for people afraid of roller coasters, but the experience was worth the $3. We also took our requisite ferris wheel ride and ate dessert at a small cafe with a view of the Kobe tower, overlooking the water. After that, we killed our last half hour or so by leisurely window shopping our way through the closed mall.
Closing out our very long day, we caught the midnight bus back to Matsuyama, arriving just as the city was starting to wake up.
Last up is a picture from my seat in the overnight bus, showing that they only have three seats across, with two aisles (and free coffee and tea). The seats recline pretty steeply, and leg and foot rests extend from the seats as well, so it’s easy to relax. Think about that next time you’re sitting in economy class wondering if there isn’t a more comfortable way to travel.
I leave you with a slideshow of most of my better pictures from the trip. Though if you’re reading my blog on Facebook, you won’t be able to see it. Try this link: http://www.davidhed.com/blog/
On Sunday, six friends and I climbed western Japan’s highest peak, Mt. Ishizuchi. We took a painfully-early 6:15am train to Iyo-Saijo, then a bus to the foot of the mountain, and finally a gondola to the base of the trail.
The hike really wasn’t that hard- at 1982 meters, it’s a little over half the height of Mt. Charleston (3632 meters) near Las Vegas, and was easily doable in one day (you have to try really hard to do Charleston in one day). In fact, I’d call it a rather fun day trip. As Mt. Ishizuchi is one of Japan’s holy mountains (of which I’ve summited two, now), there was a shrine at the trailhead and a small traditional Japanese inn- and don’t forget the requisite pre-boxed and wrapped souvenir shop- this is Japan, after all.
One of the coolest features of the hike was the climbing chains set in the rock faces to make climbing them without gear safer. They’ve since created regular hiking trails for the faint of heart that bypass the really dangerous bits, but if you’re reading my blog, you probably know which way I chose. 😉
My least favorite part of the day was the ridiculous amount of flying insects that seemed to form a roving cloud around my head. There’s at least one picture from Sunday of me with a pained expression on my face as I curse and swat frantically at the air in front of me. In fact, many of my pictures have little black streaks where they flew in front of the camera right when I hit the shutter button. On the way back down the mountain, I discovered that the souvenir shop sold bug netting to put on your hat to keep them out of your face. Now I know for next time.
Aside from the cool climbing chains and the not-so-cool bugs, once you ascend above the forest (jungle?) canopy, you’re treated to scenery worthy of the original meaning of “awesome.” It was a gorgeous day, with just enough cloud cover to keep us cool, but not so much as to spoil the views. When you’re almost at the top, there’s a very narrow ridge to traverse from the final building out to the actual peak. The rock outcropping where the “path” crosses isn’t level, and it’s a bit disconcerting to think about the drop that’s only a few feet away on either side. We all made it to the actual summit, though we almost lost one or two of our members at particularly nerve-wracking parts of the trail.
Overall, a fantastic way to spend a Sunday. Which reminds me, these are probably the first pictures many of you will have seen of my girlfriend Yuko. 😀 Long story short- we met while salsa dancing in March, and her English teacher happened to be a friend of mine. After randomly running into each other another couple of times, we started dating in May. Succinctly, she kicks ass.
If I talked to you before I went to the states on my winter vacation, I probably told you the thing I was looking forward to the most was the food.
It’s not that I didn’t miss the people, but thanks to the internet and the occasional phone call, I still had a sense of participation in my friends’ lives. Food, however, is poorly represented over the wire.
I actually kept a food diary to help me remember each meal and avoid duplications. I’ll spare you the tedium of reciting every meal and hit the highlights of my trip. Oh yeah, and I might mention the people I hung out with and the stuff we did. 😉
My first meal in the US was with Marvin at Norm’s, a locally well-known diner in West Hollywood. I was, of course, shocked at the size of my mushroom & swiss cheese burger, but oh, was it tasty. Dinner was my first dose of Mexican food at El Coyote on Beverly Boulevard (coincidentally where Sharon Tate and friends ate their last meal before they were done in by the Manson clan). Being a Jewish household, Marvin also quickly helped me get some bagels and lox back in my system the next morning.
Brian, me, and Nat
I drove to Vegas in the morning of the 20th (passing the snow you see in the picture above) to see Shannon & Kevin get married in the afternoon. The wedding, held at Red Rock Country Club, was gorgeous. The ceremony was outside, and even though Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert, the end of December is pretty cold, so I felt a bit sorry for the ladies in the wedding party as they shivered their way through the vows Kevin and Shannon composed. I was a little surprised the club didn’t bring out any of those freestanding portable heaters, actually. The reception was great too, and I liked their idea of having the wedding party actually sit at normal tables so they could eat with their families and friends instead of isolating them at the front of the room. The meal was a classy prime rib buffet with a host bar.
The next day I saw Brian & Claudia’s house and Greg & Allison’s house. They bought houses quite near each other in central Las Vegas, near where Shannon & Kevin live. That evening was the (4th?) annual Vegas group white elephant party, at Brad & Vanessa’s house this year. I brought a grab bag of assorted Japanese stuff, including an uchiwa (non-folding Japanese fan), a packet of Japanese tissues, and a hand-drying towel like everyone carries in Japan. I brought chicken egg rolls and a turkey sandwich to complement the pizza, hummus & pita, and salad that was already there. It was a fun evening, but I left my camera at my mom’s house, so I don’t have any pictures to share.
On Monday, I drove with my mom out to Bakersfield for a meeting with my grandfather and a long-term care provider. He’s 87 now, and not exactly in the best of health. I guess having TIAs (mini strokes) every few months will do that to you. 🙁
Excepting the addition of my grandfather’s little-used computer, his home’s décor hasn’t really changed much in the last thirty years. I suppose my mother looks a little different in this picture than she did growing up there, too. My grandfather and his wife get to stay in their house for now, with a health care worker there twelve hours a day. It’s the best situation for all involved.
While we were there, I worked on his computer, and my mom helped them sort out some stuff that they wanted her advice on. I also got to drive his first generation RX-7, which I always enjoy.
We ate at Lam’s Chinese restaurant one night and El Torito Mexican restaurant the next. I also had one of my perennial breakfast favorites, Kashi Crunch. It’s a cold cereal of “crunchy clusters made from Kashi Seven Whole Grains and Sesame,” with just a hint of cinnamon.
As luck would have it, a good friend and younger neighbor of theirs happens to be an RN, and she stops in about once a day to check on them as well, so I think my mom and I left them in good hands.
Me with the Tehachapi windmills in the background
On the way home, we ate brunch at Kelcy’s Restaurant in Tehachapi. This place has a surprisingly rich history, having survived through seventy five years and a rebuilding after a 7.7 earthquake, much of which is displayed photographically on its walls. I took their last order of freshly-made homestyle biscuits and gravy for the day. I can’t imagine a more stereotypically American breakfast than biscuits & gravy eaten in a roadside diner served by an aging career waitress who calls everyone “darlin’.” Good stuff.
Christmas itself was pretty low key. I was at my mom’s in the morning, and we hung out and talked for most of the day. I had a few presents for her from Japan, and between the garage door she bought me and her plan to take me shopping on Boxing Day, I was well taken care of. We lit Hanukkah candles in the evening and then went over to a family friend’s house for Christmas dinner.
At Angel’s house, I met her daughters Morgan, Kelsey, and Taylor (again?). Taylor is a freshman at the Academy, Kelsey just graduated from the Academy (vocal performance major) and is a freshman at UNR, and Morgan’s been out of school for a short while now, I believe. Kelsey and I had a lot to talk about with our shared past at the Academy and UNR. She and Taylor are both taking Japanese, and were very interested to hear about my experiences in Japan.
Of course, being Christmas dinner, there was a lot of delicious food to be had (and Dr. Pepper, which I believed until very recently to be completely unavailable in Japan). Angel made the traditional meal, with roast turkey, honey-glazed ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. I was in heaven. Remember that scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego tastes the ratatouille, and is transported back to his childhood? It kind of felt like I was really home, eating that meal. The Peaks have always been great cooks. 🙂
The next morning, I woke up to homemade blueberry and blackberry pancakes. I spent Boxing Day at the mall with my mom shopping for clothes, and again felt like I was transported back a dozen years. This time though, the experience wasn’t as pleasant. As much as I love my mom, it’s frustrating to shop with someone who doesn’t share your needs or fashion taste, especially when that person is funding the outing. I really got a feeling for what gets under my brother’s skin when he stays at her house on school vacations.
At the end of the day though, I was extraordinarily grateful for my mother’s largesse. I got the clothes I needed, and spent some time with my mother as two people, rather than mother and child. Lunch was at the mall food court, my only falafel of the trip.
That evening, I went over to Susan & Neil’s with Shannon Wood, and I remembered how different Pizza Hut in Japan is from Pizza Hut in the US. Japanese people seem to like their pizza soaked in oil with extra oil in little packets to drizzle on top. I’m not even kidding- instead of crushed red pepper, they give you packets of what seems like really mild green chili oil to drizzle on top of your pizza. The only good pizza I’ve had in Japan is from this little Italian hole in the wall near Okaido. They have an actual wood-fired oven where you can watch your pizza baking. Anyway, we spent the evening relaxing in front of the Wii (my first go at Wii Fit) and watching videos on YouTube through their NetFlix and YouTube-connected DVR. I tell you, digital convergence has come a long way.
I still hear those old Life commercials in my head when I eat Life cereal (“Mikey likes it!”), as I did the next morning. Lunch was a massive Chipotle burrito before contra dancing.
If you aren’t familiar with it, contra dancing is an American social dance with roots in English and French folk dancing. It’s a “called” dance, which means that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, kind of like a square dance. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, especially with an energetic crowd. When groups of my friends were regularly going to contra dances a few years ago, we totally dominated the floor.
While I’m in Japan, my mom is taking care of my beagle Ellie for me. When my brother moved out of the house, my mother developed a mild case of empty-nest syndrome, and with me out of the country, Ellie and my mom get along fantastically.
The next morning, the three of us went to a dog park for a beagle meetup. About a dozen beagles descended on Desert Breeze dog park at the same time. There was much howling, running, and butt-sniffing. The dog park also has a surprisingly clear view of the Las Vegas skyline. If you click on the picture and open the magnified version, you can see most of the major Las Vegas casinos in the background. Incidentally, what you see is a typical Las Vegas clear blue sky.
After the dog park, I had what was probably my favorite meal of the trip- a fantastic “everything” bagel and lox platter with my mother at The Bagel Cafe. This restaurant has won numerous awards for their food since they opened about ten years ago. It was my first time eating there, and they certainly lived up to their reputation.
We chose a mid-grade salmon for our shared 4oz platter, and it was the perfect amount of fish. The veggies were fresh and crisp, the orange juice was freshly-squeezed, the bagels were baked fresh, and the smoked salmon was to die for. (My mouth is actually watering right now as I write this and look at the picture.) If you’re ever passing through Vegas, I highly recommend you visit The Bagel Cafe.
That evening, I went out with Shannon Wood and about ten friends to celebrate her birthday at Sushi on Rainbow. I was curious to see how my memory of Las Vegas sushi compared with my more recent memory of Japanese sushi. I was pretty much right on; Japanese sushi is fresher (duh), softer, and tastier. Another big difference is the form they each take. Japanese sushi centers around nigiri sushi, the prototypical fish-slice-atop-a-bed-of-rice kind, and American (from my experience anyway) sushi seems more focused on rolls, the more unique the better. Anyway, my favorite is still salmon nigiri. BTW, next time you have sushi, ask for raw onion shavings on top of your salmon, maybe with a smidgen of mayonnaise if you like mayo. I’m not kidding, try it.
In the morning my mom made one of my comfort foods, matzo brie. Along with “English” muffins, I’m always at peace if I have some hot matzo brie in front of me.
The next day, I went to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve with Brian, Claudia, Jesse, Tony, Barbara, and Allison (where we “accidentally” got in free when we came in through the cafe where people usually leave). New Year’s Eve brought a party at Hejmanowski House, which was a normal party, I guess, but felt so strange to me. Maybe I was already subconsciously disconnecting because I knew I was about to leave my friends again, or perhaps I was on edge because I was nervous about making the flight to Colorado, but I didn’t quite feel at ease. I had to leave rather unceremoniously at 1am to drive to Los Angeles to make an 11am flight to Denver for the last leg of my trip.
From Denver, I took a shuttle to Eagle to spend a couple relaxed days with Kyria and her family, a nice end cap to the hustle of outings in Las Vegas. We all played a fair bit of Mario Kart Wii and Rock Band (on the PS3), something I’d missed out on in Vegas. We also just sat around watching movies and cooking, which was novel for me. She lives in a beautiful mountain town with her beautiful family. On my last day there, we made these most incredible pumpkin spice cookies that I actually carried with me, in a little plastic container, through the six airports it took me to get back to Matsuyama. I tell you, I savored each one of those over the next month I made them last.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip. An expensive trip, but worth it.