Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My trip part 5

Here is the fifth and final part of my adventures. Thanks for your patience. After this, I'll post some pictures and return to my normal picture-based blogging. I have tons of pictures to show and tons to say.

Again, this is part five of five. I recommend you read them in order.

Anyways, here is part five:

My last full day in town started off quite slow. Everyone had to work in the morning, so I got a chance to just relax and catch up on my writing. I tried and failed to get my laptop working on their wireless network, but it wasn’t such a big deal, and actually I found the lack of internet to be strangely soothing and allowed me to focus as there was nothing else I could have been doing. Things got off to quite a lazy start, and I was enjoying my peaceful time.

After a while the mother came up and asked me if I wanted to have lunch while I waited for the sister to return from work. She prepared some delicious curry using leftover beef that we didn’t end up cooking the night before. Curry has been a staple food since I moved to Japan, so having homemade curry with Yonezawa beef was quite a treat. Another treat was the mother, working at a school, gave me a big stack of Japanese learning books for kids. They were all promotional books, so there was no problem giving them away. I feel a bit silly with the Astro Boy teaches Kanji books, but I think it’s the best ay to learn.

The sister came home from work and before anyone was really given a chance to relax, we were loading up the car with ski equipment. For the record, I have a very love/hate relationship with skiing. I really do enjoy skiing and when I was younger, I was fairly good at it and I started skiing at a very young age. The problem with skiing is I own no equipment, no ski pants, no ski jacket, and it’s very time consuming and costly to ski, and for the first little while, if you haven’t skied in a good while, you aren’t very good. It didn’t seem like I had a choice in the matter, but that was fine.

We drove a couple hours into the mountains, passing by some lovely country side and beautiful scenery. The father was driving and seemed to be enjoying himself once we got on the windy mountain roads. The scenery very much reminded me of the mountains of North Carolina, with similar foliage and roads, however the occasional building here and there clearly reminded me of where I was.

When we arrived, we unpacked and the father didn’t feel like skiing, because apparently his back was hurting from the drive. The mother, sister, and I got geared up. I got introduced to a relative who was a ski coach at the mountain. Nobody had proper gear that I would fit into besides gloves, so we went to a nearby rental shop. The owner looked like she was a rocker in the 80’s that never grew up, but was really quite sweet and endearing. There were a few other people there and she was very busy, but even so, was very personable. While we were trying on boots, she took a moment to tell us her son was a professional snowboarder and was currently in Canada for the winter. She didn’t know much English, but she knew enough to conduct business. There was a Korean couple there and the man spoke English, but not Japanese and there weren’t really any problems.

I ended up needing to rent a jacket and ski pants, things that I don’t really think of these as ‘rentable’, but it seemed to be a regular thing here. The selection seemed to be mostly smaller sizes than me, and I ended up with a really bright yellow suit. It fit just fine, but looked a little tacky, which didn’t bother me at first, but then I remembered that girl snowboarders are really hot. Just holding a snowboard increases a girl’s attractiveness by 10%. I wasn’t looking for a date, so it didn’t really matter that much, but it was a shade embarrassing.

What was more embarrassing was my skiing ability. Several years of not skiing can really change your ability. Also, there are muscles used in skiing that I just don’t use that often anymore. Even from the beginning it was clear that I was far from where I used to be in terms of ability. I’m sure if I had a week or so in a ski resort, I could capture and even surpass where I used to be, but an afternoon of skiing was not going to do it. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good time skiing, but it was unbelievably painful.

The skiing system in Japan is quite different than what I’m used to. In America, you buy a ticket and ski for a day and that’s it. In Japan, or at least at Mount Zao, it worked more like Suica or any other train pass, where you pay per lift. With some thought, it seems much fairer, as if you ski for 3 hours, you only pay for those lifts, but if you ski all day, you pay a lot more. You also use sensor cards at gates and don’t touch anything. Most people it seemed had pockets for these cards in their sleeves or shoulders, but mine didn’t so I had to push my chest near the sensor in order to go through, because it was in my front breast pocket. I noticed I wasn’t the only person doing that, and the sensors seemed to be really sensitive, so even that worked.

The first gondola took us up to the top and there was a cute little European looking restaurant and hotel built at the top of the mountain. We skied over to another lift and proceeded up it. Out of the hotel was yodeling coming from a speaker, which is something that I had never experienced in my days of skiing. We skied some relatively easy slopes, obviously seeming like we had a destination a bit away. Going up another ski lift, there was music coming out of speakers on every pole.

After a bit of skiing, I was still enjoying myself, but I was happy to take a bit of a rest. We got on a gondola that went up the mountain, and out the window you could see piles of snow built up around wind swept trees. These were referred to me as “Snow Monsters” which at first made me chuckle, but when they were repeatedly referred to this way I got questioning if it was a translation issue. Turns out, that’s what they call those piles of snow around trees in Mount Zao, and not just the quirkiness of my company.

At the top of this gondola, there was a sightseeing place on the roof and it was quite spectacular. Hundreds of these ‘snow monsters’ dotted the landscape and there was an amazing view from all sides. Apparently, people who aren’t skiing can come up there and just take a look around. I could clearly see why someone would want to do that. Outside the gondola building there was a giant statue. It was something I’d seen before and was described to me as “Buddha’s child”. It was enormous, but because of the snow, we could only see the head, which was pretty surreal.

After this nice sightseeing, there was a truly painful descent down a gorgeous mountain. It wasn’t so bad in the end, but I seemed to be the only one suffering, which made it worse, but it was still fun. The sister wanted to go some more, but I was actually feeling like I was done. When we went to return the skis and jacket, the same woman treated us to some wonderful tea and hand made cookies, which were fabulous. The level of service she offered was way more than I had expected from a rental place. When we returned to the car, there was a sumo match on the in-dash TV. The TV can only work when the car is in park, so we sat there watching the end of this match for about twenty minutes. It was really fascinating, so I was quite fine watching, even though in concept, it was a little strange.

After skiing, we went out to sushi. It was a moderately empty ‘kaiten’ or conveyer belt sushi restaurant. These are nice, as I don’t have to order based on name, as this limits me to only getting what I already know, and instead I can just grab what I want based on looks. I sat next to the father and he encouraged me to try some of his personal favorites. I tried lots of different things, but there were two surprises, one was the intestines of some fish which was white and flakey and reminded me more of chicken than fish, but had a unique texture and flavor. The other surprise was raw Yonezawa beef sushi, which was just a slice of raw meat on a ball of rice. This was only the second time I’ve had raw beef, and while I enjoyed it the first time, a lifetime of being told to fear raw beef doesn’t rub off easy. I ate it anyways, and it was really delicious. For anyone who’s never had raw beef, it does not resemble its cooked counterpart in flavor or texture. It’s good but it is a very different type of good.

We all returned home where there was some more drinking and some more games. Not a whole lot as I had to get on a train early in the morning, but it was quite a lot of fun, as always. I beat the father at a round of Othello, but it was not easy. Even so, I think he might have let me win.

I had to get on an early train, so in the morning I woke up and didn’t have time to do much besides leave. They gave me plenty of snacks and food along with a bottle of their homemade plum wine. I said goodbye to the mother and the father drove me to the train station with the sister. It seemed we were running late, so he drove much faster than I thought a Prius could. He even blatantly ran a red light or two to get me there on time, which I think was half out of concern for missing the train and half out of fun, as we still got there about ten minutes early.

The sister and then the father waved goodbye and I thanked them the best that I could in English and Japanese, but I’m not sure it was enough. These people who I had a loose connection with treated me really well. Way better than I have had by people who don’t really know me and way better than I deserved. This was an amazing family, and they were all very thoughtful and caring. I was grateful in ways I couldn’t quite express. It was truly a life changing experience.

The ride back to Tokyo was quite the opposite from the first time. The weather was absolutely wonderful, and the views were amazing. However, I did not have a reserved seat, so I ended up in the unreserved section which was completely full and I had to stand the entire time. It was quite annoying, and I’m sure I looked silly while I was taking pictures out the window, but people didn’t mind. Upon entering the train, there was a group of young kids, mostly girls, headed for Tokyo Disneyland. It was clear that I was the topic of many snickers, giggles, and conversation. They were staring and I would smile back at them which would cause an eruption of laughter.

I made it just a few minutes late to my tutoring session, and then after that I went home and completely collapsed. It was a long trip, but a lot of fun. I was happy to be back in Tokyo, but seeing small town life was way more interesting than I had expected. I had an amazing time, and hopefully I will return there soon.

No comments: