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Small Town Pleasures (and Annoyances)
In the almost 9 years I've lived in Japan, I have yet to live in one of the major cities. Shiogama, my current location, is much smaller than my hometown but not the smallest town I have lived in. That title belongs instead to my first address in Japan, Nakatsugawa City, Gifu Prefecture. Check out this view, right? This was the view on the walk to the 100 yen shop. The only one in town involved a 30 minute trek (each way) across a large bridge, but it was hard to mind when this was the setting. No One Knows Where You Are One of the first troubles in moving to non-urban Japan is all your friends back home not really getting where you live. They may ask casually, expecting you to say Tokyo or Osaka, not that most could even point out those cities on a map, and are shocked and confused to hear anything different. Get used to it. If you stay for a bit, you may start hearing your loved ones explain your location using a newfound understanding of Japanese geography, like my brother. It can get annoying explaining the same thing after a while, and having all your friends back home suggest you explore some Tokyo thing they heard about as if you could just pop over to the city whenever you liked, but in the end, your day to day life is a lot more peaceful. So many fast food options, internet cafes, convenience stores and more of those so-Japan things you've heard are on every street corner may not actually be available or conveniently located. That said, there were plenty of vending machines in Nakatsugawa, but only with soft-drinks. Am I the only one who stands out this much?Everyone Knows Who You Are You're that foreigner, right? Must be, since you're the only non-Japanese person in town. In my experience, this usually means getting treated more like a normal person most of the time, as many people don't necessarily jump to racist responses. No signs saying "No Foreigners Allowed" like you might find in some larger cities, because there's never been a need to put one up. Also, there tend to be more people who want to help you practice Japanese than practice their English on you. I found people in the countryside to be significantly more comfortable working with my less-that-fluent Japanese than people in larger cities. Less rushing means more time, and that means more patience. The down side? Religious people may wake you up early on your day off to hand you a pamphlet in English. They know where you live, because everyone somehow knows where that foreigner lives. People may stare, but most of the interactions I've had have been decent bordering on lovely. Occasionally there are jerks, but most people are trying to work with you. Sometimes this treatment can feel a bit like being a celebrity, because everyone knows your name. When the town is big enough to hold a few foreigners, it can lead to small mix-ups. Usually, this manifests as people calling you by a different foreign name, still well-meaning for the most part. I did have one post office worker ask me to pay extra postage for some other foreigner's letter, but even that was easily resolved. This does also mean that if you go out in town and cause a ruckus, it probably will get back to your students, coworkers, and even your boss, so you have to be on pretty good behavior or wait and paint some other, bigger town red on the weekend instead. Gotta Love your Coworkers My first town was tiny-- so tiny it was actually a few towns and villages that banded themselves together a few decades ago so that they could have a train stop. Seriously. Working in a 2 teacher/1 manager conversational English school in such a small town meant that I had more time to learn about my coworkers and form close bonds-- so close in fact that I eventually married one of them, though that is a whole different story. If you're a bit introverted like me, these social things are so much easier than working in a big city. Gotta Love that Nature I took about 1,000 photos of those mountains and rice fields. I loved that weird little town, and still do. There was something really peaceful and comfortable there, on a level I've never felt in a large city. I mentioned that I met my husband when I was working in this little town. The funny thing is that we were not the first teacher-manager couple to come out of that specific little school in the middle of the Gifu countryside. A western male teacher married his female manager and moved to Europe a few years previous. The setting of small town Japan can feel so intimate that it is hard not to make life-long bonds with those you come to know. Is it the fairy-tale surroundings? The Mushishi-esque atmosphere? The lack of other people presenting themselves? The absolute boredom of rice-field-town? We may never know... Rustic...Charm? The most famous thing in that town where I lived, aside from a bit of the Nakasendo, were these "Marriage Rocks" which appear to have naturally been shaped like sexual organs. Well, the male looks masculine, but the female of the two is more like a massive crack down the middle of a massive round rock, though I guess people of the time felt it was compelling. There were postcards featuring these rocks at the only souvenir shop in town, right at the train station. Is it funny that I met my husband when we were both working in the small town with marriage rocks? I think so. Also, You'll Learn Stuff Because I lacked access to the frozen TV dinners that got me through college, I learned to cook. I worked out basic navigation by routinely getting lost in the tiny town and finding my way back pre-google maps. Adapting to living in a place where the conveniences of big-city Japan are not available can help you become a more well-balanced person overall, if you let it. Wherever you wind up and however you got there, I hope you're having a good one.
Gifu-city's Nobunaga buses
Oda Nobunaga is the most famous warlord of Japan for his ambition to conquer the country during the time of sengoku jidai, and Gifu-city, the city that holds the castle where his legacy began takes pride in it. Sights of Oda Nobunaga can be seen from all over the city, and there is a golden statue of him standing right outside of the train station.But not just that, the other most prominent sight of the famous samurai is on the city's buses. There are two loop lines that run in the city, and they are all painted green and feature different heroic poses of Oda Nobunaga in action.And with the loop line being the line on the quickest rotation (which is 15mins per bus, not an impressive number, I know), we can see Oda Nobunaga running around the city all the time.The inside of the bus is also designed to look like the interior of a castle, welcoming any visitors on the bus and reminding the locals of the pride that we have in being the home of the warlord that changed the country.Do you have any local historical pride like that being on display everywhere?
Gifu's Golden Oda Nobunaga Statue
Some of you might know that the great warlord who conquered and united Japan originated from Gifu Prefecture. More accurately, Gifu city is exactly where he established himself and his ambition. For that, Gifu city is very proud of being the home of arguably the most historical figure of Japan, and signs of Oda Nobunaga can be seen everywhere in the city.One of the most prominent appearances of Oda Nobunaga is his golden statue that stands right outside of the Gifu JR station. In the center of the station square, it stands tall, holding his helmet and his signature rifle. A huge part of his victory in war came from his trades with western businessmen and installment of western firearms in the army.That figure is what you will see the moment you step out from the station. The great Oda Nobunaga welcomes you to explore his hometown and discover the history of Japan's sengoku era.And now, I live here.-----------------------------------------Follow for more everyday magic I encounter in Japan!
Bustour to Takayama
I was looking for a nice place in the mountain, which is not too far away from Tokyo. My solution was the little town Takayama in Gifu. It takes 5 hours by bus (Nohi Bus Service from Tokyo-Shinjuku). The view from the bus was great. I saw a beautiful winter landscape in a great mountainside with many lakes and dam. I arrived in Takayama during lunchtime and walked straight to the old town of the city, to see many old nice streets full of handcraft shops, restaurants and small sake stores. I walked around and tried many sweets and drinks like amazake, which were very delicious. There was also the chance to try diffrent kinds of sake for just 200 Yen. The day ended with walking through a long street with many temples, along a small mountain.But I was very surprised. The city is very good for tourists. Every sign is written in Japanese/English and sometimes also in Chinese, Korean or French. At the tourist information you will find pamphlets in diffrent languages (English, Spanish, French, German..). Also mostly of the people in the tourist area can speak at least English and Chinese. Also you can do very easy daytrips by bus to Shirakawago and Toyama.
Mid-Summer Evening Getaway: Hanabi and Town Hopping
A unique tradition that the Japanese celebrates every summer is the Hanabi. Hanabi, which is the Japanese term for fireworks, became a summer festivity in the 18th century; although the history started in the mid-1500. According to history, one of the oldest fireworks shows in Japan was annually set up to drive away evil spirits and appease the soul of the dead. This was because of epidemics and nationwide famine that killed a million in the previous years. The celebration of Hanabi can also be deeply understood by considering the character of the Japanese people who love a ‘short-lived beauty’ such as the Sakura in spring which lasts only a few days. (Read more: http://www.nicjapanese.com/english/e-cul-hanabi.html) When I arrived in Japan, my sister-in-law had been telling me about Hanabi. I remember her describing it as ‘exciting, beautiful, and unexplainable’. Knowing that it is a fireworks show, I thought there was nothing really special about it since we have fireworks display during the New Year’s Eve and a fireworks show on a warm summer evening doesn’t quite add up. But, her excitement about the fireworks show thrilled me and made me look forward to it. Each city and town has its own schedule for the Hanabi so it is not done all at the same time. We decided to go to Sakahogi first, which is just a 10 minute car drive from Minokamo, to watch the Hanabi. I had my son dressed in a Yukata (informal cotton kimono) as it is just appropriate for the occasion. From the car window, I could catch a sight of people walking towards one direction. Most of them were wearing colorful and elaborate Yukata. Stalls for different kinds of food were set up in the place. People were patiently lining up to buy snacks, dinner, beverages, sweets, and other traditional food. We sat on the ground just like everybody did. Musicians played to entertain the people as they waited for the show. And, finally when the clock hit 7:30 exactly, the fireworks went up to the sky. I watched as it gracefully painted the dark sky. It was really spectacular. The following week, we joined the Hanabi in our city, Minokamo. The enthusiasm still hasn’t died down even if I knew I’ll be seeing the same fireworks and tasting the same food. Since Minokamo is bigger in land area and population, there was a larger crowd that night. The queues were much longer and was quite challenging to lose sight of your companions. What made this one a little special is the dancing after the fireworks show. Just after a few days, we travelled to another nearby town which is Yaotsu. People set up by the river bank and some along the foot bridge overlooking the river. As the evening was still young and the sun hasn’t set yet, people lined up to buy their food, chatted with friends they meet on the way, took pictures, and a few just sat there waiting for the night to get dark and the fireworks to start. Evening came and lanterns were floated on the river and a boat carrying lanterns was going round the river as it synchronized with the sound of a drum which created a solemn ambiance. Some minutes later, fireworks went up as high as the heavens and blasted color over the pitch dark sky. (Here are a few photos I was able to take.)Hanabi is a beautiful tradition enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. But while we all take pleasure in it, there are a few things to keep in mind. - Bring your own mat or picnic blanket if you wish to sit while watching. - Bring/buy food to avoid starving yourself.- Be very patient when queuing for food or anything. - Sometimes, there are designated entrances and exits. Take note and follow it. - Clean up and take your trash home with you. - And of course, take photos but don’t let it spoil your fun.
Minokamo: Summer on a Bicycle Ride
It was the 1st of July this year when my husband and I together with our two-year old son arrived in Nagoya airport. It was almost five in the morning but the sun was high in the sky and the wind that blew was warm and humid. I could feel pain radiating from my limbs up to my head as we were all exhausted from an 11-hour bus and airplane travel. We headed straight to Minokamo, Gifu where the rest of the family resides. Minokamo, Gifu is at least an hour and a half away from Nagoya by car giving us a chance to catch some sleep. My body badly wanted to give in to a little rest but my mind and eyes were awake. It felt like a dream. I have never been out of the country since Malaysia ten years ago. My eyes danced in amazement as I watched everything we passed by. It was all beautiful, so peaceful and calm, so green and relaxing. There was one thing in particular that I noticed, though, I have not seen a single live person walking. It made sense because there were cars everywhere. And, when we arrived in the apartment building, there were bicycles parked in front of the apartment. So, putting two and two together, people here either drive their own car, use public transport, ride bicycles, or just walk (which is rarely chosen). Driving a car on a hot summer day would be the best choice if you wish to stay cool and fresh. Some of our family can drive but asking them every now and then to drive us wherever we want would be an inconvenience on their part as they are occupied with work. Densha (train) is a great choice as well.. Although they are a little expensive, they are very comfortable. However, one thing that I really loved was the bicycle ride. The first and last time I rode a bicycle was when I was ten years old. In my mind, I could still remember how to balance my body and pedal but when I try to ride on one I feel like falling off. It was becoming impossible and I was running out of hope of ever riding a bicycle again. My husband patiently taught me to ride the bicycle again. We went around the neighborhood on bicycle every night for a week. I fell of too many times, bumped on our neighbors’ fence often, and I had cuts and bruises on my legs. Finally, I learned to ride again. Since the sun is hottest during the day and the air is heavy and humid, we go on a ride in the late afternoon or early evening when the wind is cooler and the heat does not hurt. Before setting out, we pack face towels as the heat can make you sweat heavily; and most especially a good camera. For us to travel light, we avoid bringing a lot of things. We usually just stop by convenience stores to buy something to eat; my personal favorite – Tuna-mayo Onigiri. Water is also a huge necessity so we either buy it in convenience stores or just get one from vending machines which can be seen almost anywhere. On our bicycle rides, we visit shrines, temples, parks, old towns, and shopping malls. Minokamo and another city called Kani are just separated by a river and connected by a bridge, it is easy for us to go from one city to the other. Aside from the boutiques and regular shops in malls, another interesting place that we always visit when we go biking around town are the reuse shops. These shops are basically selling second hand goods. We don’t necessarily buy stuff but we usually just amuse ourselves with what they sell in those shops. At times, we bike near the river bank to breathe fresh air and calm our souls. We sometimes park our bikes under a tree and watch the sunset or we just let our eyes gaze through the horizon. Bicycle ride on a sizzling hot summer can be challenging and unpleasant, especially in Japan where the summer temperature is as high as 38 degrees Celsius; I never get to experience this where I come from. What makes it gripping is the up close contact with the living: the people and the nature; you meet people on the road on a bike and you still get to greet them. My husband and I once visited the bamboo forest which is near the river between Minokamo and Kani. We didn’t have to get off our bicycles, instead we just biked through the forest. It was fascinating and beautiful. Japan has diverse choices of transport to choose from. All of it are convenient and comfortable. A Bicycle ride is not just a good way to exercise, it is not just friendly to the environment, it is not just cheap, or it is not just fun; it is extraordinary for me and at least a romantic bond that I share with my husband. Living in a place with the façade of a busy city, the aura of an ancient town, and the serenity of nature are great reasons to bike around town.
Visit Takayama (Trailer)
So do you remember my Summer in Japan post about Takayama? You do? Great!I thoroughly enjoyed making that article and those vlogs that went with it. However, you may not have time to watch those vlogs. Here's an idea! Check out the trailer for it instead!Once you have done that, why don't you check out my Facebook! I could do with a few more friends on there! ;-)Small Girl, Big JapanI'm all about the Japan It Forward hash tag I made. I'm all for spreading the word about Japan!#japanitforward