Monday, August 30, 2010

Hokkaido Revisited (Part II)...

Well, to put it mildly, the weather sucked on our hike from Biei-Fuji hut to the Kami-horo hut. We had hoped that the weather would break for this 4.5 hour, ridge line trek, but no. It pretty much was zero visibility fog, occasional blinding rain, and always dangerously strong and gusty winds. It was quite enjoyable. Really...

So, we struggled up a seemingly endless mountain, skirted around the top, and headed south
along the ridge top. The views, as we discovered later, were stupendous. After awhile, we entered a more volcanic area, fulls of sulfurous smells and black, loose lava/rock. That's right - the kind where you slide back down half a step for every step up. It was great.

At one point, we were halfway up a slope of never-ending, sliding lava/rock. We decided to take a break and eat some food, so we found a large boulder just off the trail, where we could shelter from the driving wind and rain. As we gulped down sports drink and wolfed some trail mix, we heard the jingle of a hiker's bear bell. Everyone wears bear bells in Japan - even hiking in the suburban foothills of Tokyo. Out of the mist came a day hiker, who we startled when we greeted him from the fog. He kept on chugging up and past us. A few minutes later, he came back down the path and handed us two little jello-like snacks, an "omiyage" (souvenir) he said. Then he turned around disappeared up into the fog. We love Japan.

After a few more hours of basically blind hiking, following the yellow paint marker splotches on rocks and footprints, we made it to the top of Tokachi-dake (mountain). "Yep, that's nice. Can't see a thing. Let's go," was our response.

Now, a faded yellow rope strung between thin, iron stakes led us down to the Kami-horo hut. It was quite welcome to see it looming out of the fog. We settled in with some other damp hikers and brewed up an even more welcome cup of coffee.

Joan struck up a quick friendship with our neighbor, Aiko, who was hiking solo. She shared some
of her food with us and peppered us with questions. Quite a character, she was. Every time she saw some of our high-tech camping gear, she loudly told the other hikers about it and told them to come look at it. Later, at about one in the morning, when she came back inside from a bathroom break, she loudly (and I mean LOUDLY) announced to the room that the stars were out and that we should all get up and go look. No one did.

The next day was foggy in the morning, and we just moped around. By lunch time, the sun finally
broke through and revealed that we were in one of the most beautiful places in the world! And it gave us a chance to hang up and dry our and the musty blankets in the hut. We spent pretty much the whole day just hanging out and taking little walks in different directions, exploring the immediate area.

We ate our dinner outside, for once, walking the distant mountain tops in the sea of clouds below.

To be continued...

Izakaya language school update

I went back to the izakaya (bar) last night after a few weeks off due to traveling. I had stopped by the week before, but Hiroyuki (my mentor, as I like to call him) had not been there. So, I only stayed for awhile and drank a beer, mostly listening to the conversations flowing around me.

I called Hiroyuki yesterday to see if he would be there, and he told me to meet him around 7 pm. After swimming at the Mitaka pool from five to six o'clock (a pleasant break from Tokyo's heat), we biked home and had a quick dinner.

When I got to the bar, I couldn't tell if Hiroyuki was inside; the glass on the door is hard to see through. However, I could see the "grumpy guy," the man I had a bad experience with last month, and it looked like the only open seat was next to him! Ahhh!

So, I waffled and hovered outside the bar, unsure of what to do. I berated myself for being such a wuss and that I should just suck it up and go on in. Yet, the grumpy guy experience had really bothered me, and I was really nervous about having to sit next to him. I considered finding a pay phone to call Hiroyuki to find out if he was actually in the bar.

Finally, I got up enough courage to peer closely through the glass, and I saw Hiroyuki in the corner, with an empty seat on the other side of him. Relieved, I opened the door and slipped in. Tabo, the owner, greeted me, as well as many of the other locals.

It was a nice hour and an half of biru, yakiniku (grilled garlic), and nihongo. We caught up with each other's lives and hopefully made plans to go to the Tokyo horse racing track. Hiroyuki is an avid horse race gambler and, according to him, is quite successful.

The nicest part of the night came when Hiroyuki and I left. After we stood up and paid our bill, we shuffled past the other chairs in the small space. Everyone said, "Mata ne" (see you next time), INCLUDING the grumpy guy who turned in his chair to face me, smiled, and said, "Oyasumi nasai" (good night). I guess it's true in Japan: whatever happens while drunk is forgotten/forgiven...

You may have already seen this photo; I took it back in May. However, it does capture the size
and atmosphere of the izakaya quite well.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Japan versus Kazakhstan

(Just a random blog post based on thoughts while walking back from train station)

I went to the train station today to buy tickets to Echigoyuzawa, where our rice farmer friends, Kevin and Tomoe, live. I had looked up the information on the Internet and had all the information about which train, times and costs. Every time I go to do something like this, I feel sick to my stomach...

In Kazakhstan, buying train tickets was a nightmare. You almost always had to take a a local friend to help you understand the intelligible Russian of the station attendant shouted through the thick glass of her booth. You never knew if there would be tickets available or what the cost would be. And if there were no tickets, you never knew why or when the next train would come. The prospect of having to go to the train station would make us nauseous...

After awhile, we learned to bribe a local friend with dinner if she would go to the station without us and buy the tickets. It was just easier without two foreigners hovering around in the background, and the cost was usually lower.

Then, there was the actual train journey. Once on the train, you never knew if the conductor had sold your seat to a passenger that had gotten on earlier without a ticket. Sometimes you would have to share the bench/bed in the compartment. Worse case, you had to stand in corridor until a spot opened up, often for hours on end. And the trip to the capital, our most common train trip, was 26 hours. Oh, the nostalgic memories...

I love Japan. I told the conductor where and when I wanted to go. He checked his computer, swiped my credit card, and handed me the tickets. No hassle, no fuss, no bribes... nothing.

People ask us, "So, how's Japan? Having any culture shock? What about Japan is driving you crazy?"

I say, "We lived in Kazakhstan. It was hard there. This is Japan: EVERYTHING works, and everyone is polite. There's nothing really to complain about here..."

Hokkaido Revisited...

Before they fade away into distant memories and the new adventure begins (bike touring in the Japan Alps in Nigata prefecture), I'm forcing myself to sit down at the computer and start working on this blog post.

As you probably remember from last year, we went up to the city of Asahikawa in eastern Hokkaido to visit Ryan, one of couchsurfing guests turned friend. Of the 18 days, eight were spent in the northern part of Daisetsuan national park; the rest were spent exploring Asahikawa and on train trip to Abashiri on the northeast side of the island.

During our first visit, we helped for a day and half on a (rice) straw-bale house project, hosted by Toby and Maiko. You can read more about it here on Joan's blog. Well, we had always wanted to see how the house would turn out, and Joan had kept in regular contact with Toby, so we finagled ourselves an invitation to come and stay with them in the finished project, and they had two cats!

Due to time constraints, we flew this time, and boy, were our arms tired! Sorry... Toby picked us
up at the airport and continued throughout the visit to be a superlative host. After few days of hanging out with them, helping them plan their yard/garden, and visiting their small town of Higashikawa, Toby took us to the southern part of the park and dropped us one early foot at the foot of a long, steep trail.

Ryan had recommended that we try the southern portion of the park, a little
smaller and narrower, but with very dramatic scenery. Another difference is that the three mountain huts are located so that you can explore the park and not need a tent, cutting down on pack weight. We planned on anywhere from five to seven days, depending on weather and other factors. Oh, the weather... But let's not go there yet.

On the five-hour hike up to the first hut, we randomly ran into Yuka, a friend of Ryan's we had met last year, coming down the trail with a friend. It is a brief but nice reunion on the mountain

Pushing farther, we made it to the hut by late afternoon and settled down in the Biei-Fuji hut.It turned out that the seasonal water supply had dried up, so we had to hike an additional 30 minutes to a small snow field/glacier to filter water for drinking and cooking.

As the clouds rolled in on the end of a sunny day, we had a beautiful sunset, the last we would see
of the sun for two and a half days...

The next morning, we woke to dense fog, the 20-foot visibility kind of fog. After some debating,
we decided to pack up and try for the next hut, four and half hours away. After hiking to the water suppy, we met some backpackers coming the other way. They warned us that the fog was really thick and the winds ahead on the narrow ridges were quite dangerous. Also, really bad weather was coming with heavy rains, probably by afternoon. After more debating, we decided to not risk it; we were also not in a hurry to get the other hut. It had just seemed something to do compared to sitting in the hut in the fog.

We followed the hikers back to the hut and set up camp again, cooking lunch, reading the one
book we had, and gazing out the doorway into the fog. That evening, the rain started. We probably could have made it to the other hut, but..."仕様がない!" ([shyoganai]"What can you do?" in Japanese).

And it rained like crazy! Then it turned into a thunderstorm that shook the mountains. The narrow, rutted trail ran in front of the hut, and the water turned it into a raging mini-river. It just rained and rained and rained.

The next morning, we again woke to dense fog, but the rain started to slacken. We couldn't take another day sitting in the hut and so decided to go for it. So we packed up, shouldered our bags, and headed out into the fog...

(to be continued...)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hot time in the garden!

We are home for a few days before taking off on another adventure (probably bike touring in the mountains in Nigata on the west side of Japan). Joan has a million and one things she wants to do, and one of them was a compost bin at her garden. According to the farmers, the soil there needs regular additions of different things: chicken dung, cow manure, and store-bought compost. Store-bought compost!? So, of course, with their permission, we built a chicken-wire compost bin...

Yesterday, we rode to J-Mart, the big home and garden store south of us, to load up on chicken wire and other garden sundries.

Today, after a late start (just to let it get nice and hot), we headed out to the garden. We quickly
staked the chicken wire into shape using large green poles the farmers usually stake their beans, tomatoes, and eggplant.

Joan started a new lasagna garden bed and generally cleaned up and puttered about, filling
her new compost bin quite quickly.

I went over to the blueberry bushes to collect that last of a very bountiful harvest. The farmers have about 20 or so very productive blueberry bushes, but they don't want to harvest them: I guess the labor compared to the profit turned out to not be worth it. So, just like last year, they told us to have at them! And have at them, we have...

I am not sure how much we have harvested in total, but Joan made about 14 jars of jam, and we have eaten a lot with breakfast cereal.

Also, they are finished harvesting mini-tomatoes; the plants are not producing enough consistently and rain has split the skin of many of them, even though they are still edible. The Japanese grocery store shopper is very picky, and the fruit must be visually perfect. However,
there are literally 1000's of tomatoes still on the plant that are good to eat. With Takashi's urging, I harvested a boatload today; we will make sauce with them when we get back and freeze it for winter soups and curries.

And did I mention it was hot today? It wasn't too bad around 10 when we started, but by noon, it was almost 90 degrees, and with the heat index, it was well over 100.