As I am now a week shy of having lived in Japan for two years, it is time for another look back over the year that has just passed. Obviously, there was one very conspicuous lowlight that occurred on March 11th, and whose effects continue to be felt, whether in the sparing use of aircon to conserve electricity, or the 6.2 magnitude aftershock that woke me up at 4am the other night. Of course, these are trivial complaints considering the thousands of people who have had their lives ruined (or ended) by the quake and tsunami. It will still be months if not years before a lot of the coastal towns get back to normal, and perhaps decades before people can go near Fukushima Daiichi. Heartbreakingly, I read recently that there are thought to be hundreds of bodies still inside the exclusion zone, unrecoverable because of the radiation.
More personally, it is a sad time of year. Every summer people leave and are replaced by new ALTs; it goes with the territory and is just something you have to get used to. But this year there is an unusually large exodus out of Yamagata (I don't think this is to do with the quake, as we had to decide whether to recontract back in February), including many of my closest friends. I think one person in particular deserves a shout-out: Alda, who featured in a number of both this and last year's top tens. You're an awesome person, and I'm going to miss you.
But that's enough doom and gloom, let's get on with the top ten! Because my blogging has been rather slacker in the last 12 months, this is going to be the first time I've told you about quite a few of these things. In fact, I can reveal that this countdown will contain a previously undisclosed bombshell.
Alright, let's go!
10. Gassan Rock, July
A very recent one to kick things off. A bunch of Yamagata ALTs took it upon themselves to organise a small outdoor music festival. This year's crop of ALTs contains a surprising number of musicians, so between the various permutations of gaijin performers and a bunch of proper Japanese bands that had been invited (including one from as far afield as Osaka), they had a line-up for the whole afternoon and evening.
The weather was glorious, although uncomfortably hot, something which I (and many others) attempted to remedy by jumping into a paddling pool fully clothed. In fact, due to the heat I felt so drunk after just three beers that I had to lie down in the shade for a while. As dusk fell we were entertained my some great performances, ending with a rousing rendition of Rinda Rinda from Yamagata ALT band Turbo Hige ("turbo beard"), during which I moshed for the first time in years. (Moshpits are not included in my retirement from dancing, due to a curious loophole.) But then, the (male) guitarist proposed to the (female) bassist, who accepted, and they then promptly donned yukata for a surprise wedding ceremony. Maybe it was just sunstroke getting the better of me, but I was blubbing throughout, which isn't really like me. Actually, the whole event had quite a bittersweet emotional atmosphere for me, because it was the last time I would be seeing many of the people there. But what was good was that I was able to bond with Gemma (with whom I shared a car and tent), one of my few local friends who is sticking around next year.
9. Tendo night out, March
Drunken nights at izakaya and/or karaoke joints are kind of ten-a-penny in this line of work, but sometimes the planets just align and you have one that is truly memorable. This happened for me back in March, the weekend before the quake. I had spent the day boarding at Jangle Jungle, a great little freestyle-oriented resort in the remote north-east of the prefecture. That evening people were meeting up for yakiniku in the onsen town of Tendo, so I figured I could have a nice relaxing onsen to freshen up before hitting the town. However, despite the place being famed for its hot springs, I couldn't find a single one that was open to the public - they were all attached to hotels. With time running out, I eventually gave up and attempted to head to the meeting place, but I couldn't find it. Seriously, the sooner people just start giving GPS co-ordinates instead of "directions", the better. Anyway, I eventually rolled up, late, sweaty and still in my boarding gear. It's funny how often the best nights rise from the ashes of debacle.
The party turned out to be much better attended than I had expected. There must have been at least 25 of us, taking up about half of the yakiniku restaurant. We had the standard couple of hours of unlimited boozing and burnt bits of meat, then headed for karaoke. There were too many of us to fit in one room, so we split into a soft-drinks only group and a nomihodai group. No prizes for guessing which I was in. Even with our party divided, it was still the most populous private karaoke session I've ever experienced, with 16 participants and 4 (count 'em, four!) mics. It quickly became quite rowdy; it was my first introduction to the north-Yamagata tradition of taking one's top off, and soon almost everyone in the room was shirtless and dancing on the seats. It was probably the closest my life is ever going to get to a Skins promo. I gave a memorably unhinged, snarling performance of Rinda Rinda (I promise, that song is not going to feature in every entry). And, amongst all this drunken madness was when I first took a shine to a certain someone...
8. Lake Tazawa, July 2010
Technically, this shouldn't really qualify, as it was in my first year. But since I excluded my friends' visit from last year's countdown, it seems only fair to include it this time around.
A 16-day period is stretching the definition of a moment too much, so I feel I must narrow the holiday down. I'd say the Tohoku road trip section was the highlight, and of that, my favourite memory is from the first night, when we arrived at Lake Tazawa in Akita. I covered this one in detail at the time, but to recap briefly: illicit sunset swimming in a caldera, microbrewery (though the food was awful), then spending the night in a jazz guesthouse. Niiiice.
7. Niigata Russian Village, October (photos)
I blogged about one abandoned theme park that I visited last autumn, but it was a bit of a damp squib, having been almost completely demolished. Well, a couple of weeks later I teamed up with Alda again for another haikyo expedition. This one was rather more successful, but I never got around to posting about it.
Our destination wasn't a theme park as such, as it had no rides. It was just a Russian-style 'village' that someone had constructed in the hills of northern Japan, thinking that this was a surefire way to pull in the tourists. Clearly they were mistaken, as the place has been closed since the late 90s. Fortunately for us, no-one had yet bothered to demolish it, and though a few vandals had left their mark on it (the hotel, for instance, was little more than a burnt-out shell), some parts were still in eerily pristine condition.
Highlights included a wedding chapel complete with all sorts of Christian imagery (which is quite incongruous in rural Japan), and a hall containing a life-size imitation woolly mammoth skeleton. At first we thought we had the place to ourselves, but as we entered the central plaza, we could just make out the sound of a radio, that seemed to come and go. This really, really freaked us out - who knows what kind of psychopath hangs out in an abandoned fake Russian village, preying on dumb foreigners who stumble into his lair? But it turned out to just be some people wandering around, sensibly carrying a radio to alert bears to their presence and thus avoid dangerously startling them. As the day went on, we came across a few other people, including some Caucasians who turned out to be actually Russian. What the hell they were doing there I can't even begin to imagine. All in all, it was a deliciously odd day.
6. Cycling around Lake Hibara, May (photos)
The first week of May is Golden Week, where four public holidays fall in quick succession. The trouble with Golden Week is that due to everyone in Japan having a holiday at the same time, travel is even more extortionate than usual, lodging is hard to come by, and everywhere is crowded. However, I hit upon an ingenious plan to avoid the crowds: a camping trip to Fukushima, specifically to Mt Bandai and the surrounding lakes. Don't worry, Fukushima is a big prefecture, and this locale is scarcely any closer to Daiichi than my house is.
So, I joined forces with Alda once again, and spent three days sampling the natural and only mildly radioactive beauty. It seemed the camping season hadn't started yet, as the campsite we went to was unmanned (and thus free!), and very quiet. Alda introduced me to geocaching, a kind of treasure hunt game where people conceal little boxes of trinkets in interesting or beautiful spots, and post their GPS co-ordinates on the internet. As you can imagine, this is right up my street. On the second day we attempted to climb the aforementioned mountain, but we had to abandon this on account of the large quantities of snow impeding our progress.
According to my own rules I have to narrow it down to one day, so I choose the third day, when we rented bikes and cycled the 36km around Lake Hibara. It was a gorgeous sunny spring day, and after an initial tough hilly section, it was an easy ride by the lakeside with beautiful views over the water. At one point we stopped for a rest and sat on a jetty, soaking up the sunshine and looking at Bandai-san across the blue lake. It put me in mind of the lochs of my childhood in the Scottish Highlands - Loch Ness, Loch Morlich, Loch Earn... - and I got a little homesick and nostalgic, but in a nice way. And then, as we completed our circuit, we stumbled across a burnt-out hotel to explore. A delightful day, even if it did cause my companion some third-degree chafing.
Ok, stay tuned for entries five through one, including that as-yet unexploded bombshell.