A Trip to the Onsen

Last weekend, Dustin and I went on a little mini-trip. We rode the Banetsu Monogatari, an old steam train that ran from the 1940's until the late 1960's that has been restored and makes two runs a week these days.We went to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a little town in the prefecture to our north. Our final destination was Higashi Yama Onsen Machi (East Mountain Hot Springs Town).

The 3 hour ride to Aizu was quaint. The countryside we passed on the way was beautiful. They held janken (rock, paper, scissors) tournaments in which the winners won little buttons and other souvenirs. I did feel a bit guilty about the environmental consequences of our ride when I saw the black smoke billowing out of the train. I felt even worse when our ride was finished and I saw the men covered in black shoveling coal into the train's bowels.

At the Aizu train station, we found a nice little map with different options for lunch. Most of the choices involved ramen or sushi, which is pretty typical for any Japanese town. At the very bottom of the map, however, as far away as you could get from the station, there was a little icon of a radish. I looked at the key and saw that a radish indicates something to do with vegetables. Dustin knew a few more of the kanji in the description. He determined that this particular restaurant had something to do with earth vegetables. Hmmm... an organic vegetarian restaurant in this small Japanese town? That would be incredible! I haven't seen a single vegetarian restaurant since my time in Japan began.

I warned Dustin that it might be far away and since it was Sunday, it could be closed. But he was nice enough to put those worries aside and accompany me to this potential vegetarian restaurant. From our experience, maps in Japan tend to look a lot bigger than the area they represent. And when you ask for directions, if someone tells you it's a 10 minute walk, it's usually more like 5 minutes. Despite the fact that the restaurant looked like it was about a half-hour walk from the train station, we expected it to be about 10 minutes away.

We set out with our map and walked and walked and walked. It seems this map was accurately scaled. About 25 minutes after we began our trek, we came across the "restaurant" we had been looking for all that time. Only... it wasn't a restaurant. It was a grocery store. Oops. We had passed one of those about 5 minutes from the station. They did have a really yummy pumpkin croquette and a super cheap nashi (Asian pear), but I don't know if it was worth the nearly half-hour walk.

During our journey we explored Aizu and decided that there's not too much there, so we set out immediately for the onsen. The little town where our hotel and onsen was located was up in the mountains. It was so quiet and peaceful. Nothing was there but various onsen, a few shrines, a tiny little grocery store, a liquor store, and curiously, a cork gun shooting range.

Our weekend was full of relaxing. When the cute little Japanese girl in her full kimono and accouterments took our bags to our room at the hotel, she served us a formal tea. After tea, we had a bit of time to enjoy our gorgeous room and win a few prizes at the shooting range before the fancy dinner. I can't even count how many courses were in this meal. Dustin loved it. It was all very traditional Japanese food. I didn't find much on the menu to suit me, but what I did like was very nice. I had brown rice for the first time in Japan. It was the most delicious rice I've ever had. I'm definitely going to try to find some in Nagaoka.

After dinner, we reserved one of the onsen for an hour. Normally, there is a female onsen and a male onsen, and the two sexes don't mix, but at our hotel, you could pay a bit extra and be alone with your partner for a while. It was really romantic and completely peaceful. We spent most of our time in the outside portion of the onsen. The nights are starting to get cool, so it was really lovely to feel the cool breeze and be in this piping hot, fresh water surrounded by trees and a stream and nature in general.

We had a long night's rest on very comfy futons (which were magically put out for us when we returned from dinner). In the morning, the breakfast we were served was enormous. It was pretty strange to have so many vegetables for breakfast, but it was filling and tasty, so I have no complaints. We had just enough time for one little dip in the onsen before check-out. I guess most people take their morning bath before breakfast, because both Dustin and I had our onsen to ourselves. While I was sitting outside under a little gazebo looking around at the trees and listening to the birds, I felt truly alone for the first time in about a year. Japan is so full of people that it's really difficult to find a place to be by yourself. Since we moved to the busiest corner of Nagaoka, I hear people out and about at every hour of the day and night. Even if I am alone, I don't quite feel like I am. It was incredibly calming to just sit in that water and be.

But alas, the relaxation had to come to an end eventually. We checked out, but had a few hours before our train left, so we decided to explore Higashi Yama Onsen Machi a bit more. We climbed up the steep stairs to find an uncared for shrine covered in bugs and mold. There was a playground in the yard that looked like it hadn't been used for a decade. We also saw gigantic spiders on our walk around town. Dustin was taking a picture of one and he told me to put my hand by the web for scale. I cautiously obliged, but he felt that my hand was not close enough to the spider, so he pushed it a little closer, and then closer still, and then too close. My hand hit the web and sent the spider into a fury. When I saw him move, I ran. It was terrifying.

During our adventure around Aizu the day before, we'd passed a Thai restaurant that was closed at the time, but I'd written down the phone number and confirmed that they were open for lunch Monday. We planned on lunching there before our train left. I was so excited for some yummy Thai food. After figuring out which bus to take to get to the center of town, we got off near the restaurant, sat down, and were given the options for lunch: chicken or fish. We explained that I was a vegetarian and asked if there was anything besides these two options, and the waitress said, "No. At lunch, everyone orders this one or this one." Wah. So, we didn't have Thai after all. We ate at a cheap chain Italian fast food place that was tasty, but not Thai.

I was jonesing for some ice cream, and I saw soft serve in about 4 or 5 shops along the street, so we set off in search of the perfect cone. I didn't really want plain vanilla, but that's all we could find, so I settled on it. It was a tasty treat, but I still wished I had found something more exciting. After my ice cream, we decided to head towards the station to catch our train. We got about one block from the shop where I'd bought my ice cream when we found a café that offered very interesting soft serve: black sesame, sweet potato, green tea, edamame, and others. I cursed myself for settling on vanilla. I had been wanting to try black sesame seed soft serve since I heard of its existence in Japan, but I'd never come across it in Japan. Dustin wanted to try one of these crazy ice creams, so we went inside. Knowing how strong my desire to taste the black sesame flavor was, he ordered it. Just outside the shop, he took a lick. He didn't like it. I took a lick. I didn't like it. Well, we tried it.

All in all, a very nice little weekend full of food and baths. I came back quite relaxed, but I wish it could have lasted longer. Luckily, a few Japanese holidays line up nicely this year to create the rare "Silver Week." We have a four day weekend starting Sunday! Dustin is going camping on the beach, but it's way to cold for me. Instead, I am going to join two of my friends, who are Muslim, in celebrating the end of Ramadan by eating some yummy Syrian food at their feast. Other than that, I see lots of sleeping, reading, and movie watching in my near future. It's been an extremely busy summer, and I could definitely use a vacation spent almost entirely in my apartment.

You can see some pictures of our weekend by clicking on the new photo album at the right!


And IIIIIIIIIII Will Always Loooooove Yooouuuuu!

Whitney Houston has a new album out. They were talking about it on NPR, which I was listening to via a podcast while I was preparing for my lessons today. They compiled a nice little medley of some of her most popular songs from the late 80's/early 90's. When I was 5ish, I think I loved Whitney Houston. I remember occasionally hearing some of her songs in the car, because my dad had a Whitney tape that was occasionally popped in the tape deck. I knew all of the words, so I think that qualifies my feelings towards Whitney's music as positive (at least my 5-year self's feelings towards her).

There is a certain song that sticks out in my mind when I think of Whitney Houston. It's probably the same song that sticks out in most people's minds when they hear her name, so I know I'm not special, BUT the reason this song holds such a strong memory for me is perhaps different than the reason others remember "I Will Always Love You." As many of you can recall, Whitney Houston starred in the movie The Bodyguard, which apparently "received negative to mixed reviews" according to Wikipedia. (I mistakenly thought that it was semi-autobiographical, but I fact checked and cleared up that long-held, but seldom pondered misconception. While on Wikipedia, I learned many other interesting facts about The Bodyguard.)

Laugh if you must, but I cannot count how many times I have seen this movie. It's not the undeniable chemistry between Whitney and Kevin Costner that kept me coming back time after time. It was sheer lack of options. My grandma had very few videotapes at her house. My sister and I spent a fair amount of time at her house during summer "vacations" and family trips. I don't know if we always begged to watch movies or if she always had one playing, but I associate time spent in her house as a child very strongly with movies. And by movies, I mean the same four movies over and over and over and over again.

From the time I was around 5 until I was 15 or so, I don't think my grandma bought any new movies. It's possible that she owned more than four movies, but the only ones I remember seeing on an endless loop were (in order of most watched) Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman, The Bodyguard, and Cutting Edge. What? Were you expecting a 5 year old to watch Aladdin or something equally as immature and childish (I love Aladdin, by the way). Coincidentally, the last time I was at her house cleaning up a bit, I noticed that she had several boxes of brand new DVDs, some still in their original shrink wrap. I guess she was just waiting for us to stop visiting as regularly to update the movie collection.

Anyhow. That was a very long background story about what I really want to tell you about... Back to me in my classroom in a suburban Japanese town that doesn't see a heck of a lot of foreigners, listening to the Whitney Houston medley when "I Will Always Love You" pops up. I was alone, so I threw up my arms and pretended I was on stage and lip synced until the "yoouuuuuu," when a bit of the song kind of slipped out (completely without my consent). At this point, I hear a very timid "Sumimasen," or "Excuse me." It was obvious by his slightly embarrassed look that he had not just walked in the door. I didn't know what to do, so I just rushed to the door and left Whitney belting out a series of pop hits while this frightened businessman handed me a card about graphic design. (Random people sometimes stop by the classroom to hand out cards for businesses which I can't fathom why an English school would need their services.) He was speaking in super polite rapid-fire Japanese and I was so mortified that I didn't even try to process what he was saying. I just nodded my head and left him finish his monologue before telling him, "I don't understand anything, but a Japanese person will be here next week." If I had been less flustered, I could have gotten across my meaning a bit more eloquently, but I really just wanted him to leave as soon as possible. So did he, apparently, because after I said, "Arigato" and took his card, he bolted out the door, and I keeled over laughing at myself.

If you need a refresher on "I Will Always Love You" or The Bodyguard, this official music video pretty much does it justice. I think the unsuspecting Japanese dude today walked in at about 3:20 in this video and saw a good 20 seconds of reenactment.