Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pass the sunblock, please!

While at K's House hostel in the Fuji 5 Lakes area, we saw a poster for one of their sister hostels in Hakuba, about 44 miles west of Nagano. It is located in the Japan Alps and looked like a good jumping off spot for hiking, snowshoeing, and skiing. With more vacation time to use up, we decided on another little mini-vacation. A friend of ours is coming in September and wants to do some hut-to-hut trekking in the Japan Alps, so it seemed a perfect excuse to do some "research," as we call it.

The night before, we had extremely strong winds which made the windows rattle and the building shudder. It also played havoc with the train system, shutting down and delaying almost all the train lines in Tokyo. Normally, everything runs like clockwork - it is an issue of national pride, I believe. This happened last year when a typhoon hit the city dead center; everything shut down. After living in Japan for awhile, it sort of feels like the end of the world. The electronic signs don't give any information or times about the next train. Everyone just stands worriedly on the platform, waiting for the next train. In the photo, everything is supposed to be green colored!

Well, we missed our bus. Luckily, the helpful bus station clerk in Shinjuku helped us figure out a way to get to Hakuba with only a loss of three hours, not the eight hours we thought it would be. After passing through Nagano, the road slowly climbed up into the mountains. The light rain turned to heavy snow, and soon we were deposited at a bus stop at the foot of the mountains. With sandals on (C'mon! It was warm and sunny in Tokyo) and iphone in hand, I led Joan up the narrow roads to K's House. The area really reminded us of Lake Tahoe or any other skiing tourism community: the same small hotels, cafes and gear shops tucked in the trees.

As per usual, K's House was fantastic, and the staff were super-helpful! The style/design of all the K's Houses is a sort of Ikea meets traditional Japanese; it makes for a very relaxing and pleasant atmosphere. After we settled in, I quizzed the staff about things to do and places to go. Luck was with us as the weather the next day was supposed to be perfect. So, we decided to go big!

The next morning, we got up early and took a train, bus, gondola, and finally a rope way" (cable car) to Tsugaike National Park at 2,000 meters about sea level. It had snowed about 30 centimeters the night before, which added to the already waist-deep powder on top of who knows how much snow.

We had rented snowshoes and poles at the bottom of the gondola, which we strapped on and headed out into the bright, sunny valley with mountains all around us. There were a good number of people with the same idea, primarily skiers and snowboarders, who planned on climbing to the tops of nearby peaks above the park and then carving down through the fresh, untouched snow.

Throughout the day, we would hear whoops and yells from above and quickly look up. Soon we would see a black dot that turned into an ecstatic, gravity powered, snow rider. By the end of the day, almost all the high slopes were covered with snaky lines of tracks.

We had a map, but there were no trails, so we just followed some ealier snowshoers for a few hours. After awhile, we struck out on our own, forging through the deep powder. We quickly realized, from the burning sensation in our thighs, that it was better to stay on the more established trails. However, one highlight of our wandering in the woods and drifts was a white show hare that magically appeared from nowhere and took off across the snow in a classic dash. We backtracked him and found the door to his snug little house under the branches of a low pine.

As the day wore on, it became warmer and even sunnier! Ah, the sun! It was great, until we realized we didn't have any sunblock/screen. Well, let's just say that we got more than a little sunburned. In fact, we got fried: "Yaki-Bailey" in Japanese.

However, we both agreed it was worth it. It was Joan's first time snowshoeing, and it was fantastic. Throughout the day, she kept declaring that we were "definitely going to have to buy snowshoes."

Over 10 hours later with a reverse repeat of transportation, we finally made it back to K's House, exhausted and parboiled. A quick dinner led to drooping eyes which led to bed by 9:00 pm. We want to do it again but with better preparation. We are also looking forward to returning for the trekking this summer!

If you want to see all the photos, click here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fuji 5 Lakes trip

From certain places in our neighborhood, we can see Fuji-san in the distance. Even far away, he is a breath-catching site. On clear days, after a rain has washed the haze from the sky, we run to the tallest building in Musashisakai, the nine-floor "Swing" building, and take the elevator to the top to say hello.

In one of the many redesigns of Tokyo after fires and earthquakes, the streets were laid out to enhance the view of Mt. Fuji. It makes one realize that, before all the buildings began increasing in height, Mt. Fuji was an ever-watching "kami" (Shinto deity), looming over everyone and everything.

At the foot of Mt. Fuji are the Fuji Five lakes - "Fujigoko" - a popular destination for day trippers and hikers. Many of our visitors have asked about it and whether it is was worth a trip. So, to answer that question, we decided to take a short trip there while I still have vacation. We stayed at K's House Backpacker hostel, a chain in most big cities. We stayed last year at the K's in Kyoto with my mother and really liked their operation.

An easy highway bus trip got us to Kawakguchiko in about 1.5 hours, with lots of time to rent bikes from K's and ride around the lake and part of another. It was a great way to see the area, and the views of the mountain were fantastic.

That night we had "hou-tou" udon (a soupy dish with vegetables and meat), with the thick, wide noodles that make it a specialty in the Yamanashi prefecture. Our farmer friends had recommended we try it, and, as usual, they were right!

The next day we went for a seven-hour hike to the top of Mitsu-toge, a nearby peak with great views of Fuji (covered in clouds) and Lake Kawaguchi. Joan suffered mightily, still sore from the six-hour broccoli planting marathon on Sunday before! The uphill was long and gradual, following the ridge through forests and open meadows. The downhill portion was short, steep, and snowy, eventually dropping into a deep valley with a small stream that got larger and larger. We thought the finale of the trip was to be the waterfalls at the bottom. While they were fairly impressive, we were completely surprised and stunned by the Sengen shrine that we stumbled upon.

Among the buildings of the shrine, massive, and I mean MASSIVE, cedar trees disappeared up into their own greenery. With late afternoon sun and a quiet stillness, it was one of the most enchanting places we have found so far.

That night, we went to the onsen next door to soothe our muscles and then had "hou-tou" udon, again!

The trip was really a recon trip for future excursions and to find out details about climbing Mt. Fuji, something we hope to do this September. I can finally now say that we have been there, and we highly recommend it...

The full photo album for the trip can be seen HERE.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Back in the saddle again - the food saddle, that is!

After reacquainting ourselves with all the lovely food of Midwest America, we are back to our food adventures in Tokyo.

A recent article in the New York Times about ramen, the famous Japanese noodle/soup, recently got our taste buds quivering. It profiles some of the best and most interesting ramen shops in Tokyo, as well as exploring the whole culture of ramen. We have already found some ramen treasures out there, especially the yuzu ramen that Joan wrote about earlier.

We tracked down the closest ramen oasis and made plans to bicycle there to meet Peter, a fellow teacher who lives near the shop. Ivan Ramen was opened three years ago by a New York city chef who had made Japan his home and decided to take on an interesting challenge: could a "gaijin" (foreigner) make ramen good enough to win over natives who consider it a key element of their culture?

Well, after a 45-minute bike ride, the line of 20 people waiting outside the small shop on a sunny Saturday afternoon seemed to answer that question. As we waited for customers to duck into the shop, slurp their big bowls of noodles, and quickly clear the stool seats for the next hungry person, Ivan, himself, came out to say hello. Fluent in Japanese, he greeted everyone and thanked them for their patience. Switching over to English, he eagerly told us his story of how he ended up with a tiny noodle shop on a back street in Tokyo. He also guided us through the menu and made some recommendations. The smell filling the small alley made us salivate.

We finally ducked through the curtained doorway and took our seats, eager to order and get to work.

After a flurry of finger pointing at the menu and "Hai. Hai," one of the five busy guys behind the counter called out our order.

Soon, we received our bowls of goodness. As a change from my normal choice of traditional soupy ramen, I ordered Spicy Red Chilli Men, with a smaller volume of oily sauce on top of sautéed tomatoes and eggplant with a piece of grilled pork.

Joan does not care as much for soupy ramen, so she ordered hers "tsukemen" style, with the noodles served separately (hot or cold) to be dunked in a dish of dipping sauce. She ordered hot, rye-flour noodles that came with a creamy, spicy chilli-sesame sauce.

Wow. Let's just say we'll take you there when you come for a visit. That's all you need to know about how good it was.

And to finish it all off, Ivan followed us out of his shop and stood on the sidewalk with us for over 20 minutes, telling us all about his ramen adventures, especially becoming a TV celebrity on"ramen game shows."

We will definitely be back to try his other offerings, both traditional and not. We are also making plans to try out some of the other shops profiled in the NYT article, especially Basanova on the west side of Shibuya. Their green curry ramen sounds delicious but inconceivable!