Sunday, July 31, 2011

The annual countdown, part 2.2

Ok, let's bring this home!

5. Okitama bike ride, November (photos)
A bunch of people wanted to do a charity bike ride last autumn, and I decided to put my issues with charity aside and get involved. Some truly insane routes (cycling all the way through the mountains to Niigata, anyone?) were being suggested, so I took it upon myself to propose an approximately 70km circuit around the basin containing Yonezawa, Kawanishi, Takahata and my home town, Nanyo. It was accepted, and before I knew it we were all gathered at Yonezawa City Hall on a motley collection of rented mamacharis ("mama's bikes"), with me leading the pack armed with my trusty GPS and a high-vis green vest.

Once again, we lucked out with the weather: it was an unseasonably warm and sunny autumn day, and the hillsides were all kinds of stunning shades of orange and red. I'd included a couple of forays up into the foothills surrounding the plain on the route, just to keep things interesting - where's the challenge in just riding around a big circle on the flat? On the first of these, there were a few grumbles of complaint, but little did they know what awaited them in the afternoon.

We stopped off for a noodle-based lunch in my town. I had to improvise because Akayu's most famous ramen shop was queued out the door, as it often is on weekends. Then we tackled the big hill, and people started literally cursing my name. But we all made it, and I maintain that we all felt that much more accomplished as a result. With the light starting to fade, I had to axe my plan of taking in a winery, which was possibly for the best in retrospect. On the dusky homeward stretch we came across a graveyard full of monkeys, no doubt stealing the food and drink left as offerings in the Buddhist tradition. At last we made it back to Yonezawa and after the inevitable bit of cat-herding whenever one tries to organise gaijin to do anything, we had some well-earned refreshments at an izakaya.

The nice thing about the bike ride was that it was mostly with people from the other end of the prefecture that I don't see all that often, including a couple that, dare I say, I didn't like very much. But the common goal of getting around my masochistic circuit brought us together, and I feel I really bonded with some people and got to see new sides of them. Of course, they're all leaving now, dammit.

4. Gunma bungee jump, June
I think I've covered this in plenty of detail already. Moving on...

3. Boxing Day at the Stewart household, December
After 17 months in Japan, I thoroughly enjoyed returning to my old stomping grounds of Edinburgh and Inverness, and experiencing the confusing feeling of being unsure which end of my 12-hour flight constituted 'home'. The fact that Edinburgh was unusually snow-covered during my visit made it all the more memorable. But, once again I must follow my own arbitrarily set rules and pick one day.

I considered choosing the afternoon I spent with auld acquaintances in the Auld Hoose, the pub where I spent most tuesday nights for half a decade, eating nachos and trying to remember the capital of South Dakota, or something. As I've said before, I sorely miss British pubs. But no, I'm going to go with Boxing Day in Inverness. With my family, Christmas Day is a quiet, intimate affair, and then on the 26th we throw our doors open to whichever family friends want to come along. I think I have internalised the Japanese custom of giving omiyage, as I had brought back lots of little presents for everyone: local sake, complete with traditional tiny cups, and dried squid and grasshoppers as a comedy accompaniment. I regaled our visitors with tales of Nippon, and as is traditional at events of this sort, assumed the role of cocktail waiter. Kamikazes all round, naturally.

Partly in honour of my new Oriental life, and partly because we had run out of chairs, we made the dining room Japanese-themed, i.e. we sat on the floor around a coffee table, drinking Asahi. As the evening rolled on, we ended up playing an inter-generational drinking game that caused the crate of Asahi to be depleted with frightening rapidity. Around half ten, with the older guests calling it a night, the youngsters (plus me) decided to slam a quick tequila, jump in a taxi, and hit the divey, depressing nightlife of Inverness. However, we fell foul of the 'curfew' and ended up just going back to Blair's place, which was probably for the best anyway.

2. Osaka with the parentals, April
Often holidays can fizzle out a bit towards the end, but not on this occasion, as the final full day of my folks' stay in Japan was unquestionably the highlight for me. After rainy days in Kobe and Kyoto, we finally caught a meteorological break for Osaka. After a leisurely start, we trekked out to the remote Museum of Ethnology, situated in a weirdly sterile and bleak park that was built for the 1970 World's Fair. On arrival at the quiet museum (it was a monday morning) we were given jury-rigged PSPs with headphones for a personal English-language audio-visual tour. The objective of the place was to showcase all of human culture, and given the inherent impossibility of such an undertaking, I feel they did rather well. As well as being visually beautiful, the cultural artifacts were truly thought provoking. The main thoughts they provoked in me were:
  • How much of human culture comes down to tediously acquiring food and sheltering oneself from the elements, and how fortunate and historically unprecedented a position I am in that I don't have to worry about these things.
  • How obviously silly other cultures' religions are, and how foolish people who have the benefit of this perspective but who fail to generalise this observation to their own religion are.
  • Is it so terrible that Westernism is destroying all of this colourful, varied, beautiful culture, or is it in fact just progress?
Anyway, excellent though the museum was, fatigue starts to set in eventually, and we gave the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido (Japan was the final part of the museum) rather less attention than the canoes of the Micronesian tribespeople (Oceania was first up). So late the afternoon we headed back into the city and went up the Sky Building, sticking around on the observation deck for the stunning sunset (or stunset). Then it was a trip to the bustling Dotombori, Osaka's restaurant and entertainment district. After a bit of indecision about where to eat (during which the flyerers were quick to help us make up our minds), we went for a middling-to-up-market sushi place, where both the food and the atmosphere were excellent.

Back in Yamagata, my father had expressed an interest in experiencing the legendary nomihodai, or all-you-can-drink. This being their last night, it was now or never, so I decided it was time for karaoke. Marlo seemed a little dubious, but I booked us in for a two hour session. After a slightly shaky start - Lady Gaga songs really are quite vocally challenging - they got more into it than I could ever have hoped for: the Proclaimers' 500 miles, Chumbawamba's Tubthumping, Sweet's Ballroom Blitz... We ended up getting a supplemental half hour, very nearly missing the last subway, and then extremely needlessly having a nightcap back in the hotel.

1. Mt Asahi, June
If there's one thing Yamagata has no shortage of, it's mountains (the clue is in the name). I decided it's about time I started climbing up some in summer of them instead of just sliding down them in winter, so together with a friend of mine - Amber, a fellow British ALT - we set our sights on Mt Asahi, "one of Japan's least accessible mountains".

I'll say right now that this was a hardcore hike, and it probably wasn't particularly smart for two jokers like us, with no real outdoor expertise or indeed proper maps, to just rock up and have a go at it. Before we even put our boots on we were a little apprehensive, as we had spent the last half hour of our journey on a single track road that had got progressively less and less suitable for our kei-cars. In fact, as we finally parked up, a worrying smell of petrol was coming from my vehicle - had a stray branch or rock somehow compromised the fuel line? I sincerely hoped not.

We kitted up and set off in the light drizzle, rucksacks on back and GPS in hand. The initial section of the hike involved following a river upstream, and thus wasn't particularly steep. Nevertheless, it was far from easy going, as we were in essentially a ravine, and had to keep picking our way up and down the steep, rocky banks, often with the aid of ropes or chains that had been thoughtfully provided. The hairiest moment came when we encountered a partially wrecked bridge over the river, forcing us to go into full-on team-building exercise mode and start throwing rucksacks to one another over the gap and the like.

After a couple of hours the river section ended, and we started ascending through a forest at a punishing gradient. By about half an hour in, we were nostalgically reminiscing about the good old days of the river. Making matters worse, we had forgotten to take any insect repellent, so had swarms of flies permanently orbiting our heads. Of our two rucksacks, one was much larger and heavier than the other, and thus far, Amber had been shouldering its burden. With the going getting tough, I realised it was about time I did the gentlemanly thing and swap, and I descended into a whole new world of pain. After about 600m ascent, and with about the same ahead of us, I started to have some doubts about whether I could make it. But there was nothing to do but keep chomping down the Calorie Mate and climbing.

Eventually we emerged from the tree line. The views would probably have been stunning, were it not for the fact that the clouds had rolled in, the drizzle was intensifying, and the wind picking up. As we trudged up a rocky ridge, with about 250m vertical to go, I shamefully caved in and asked to switch rucksacks again. My spirits were instantly buoyed (it was literally a huge weight off my shoulders), at the price of Amber's soon-flagging morale. It was just like the Horcrux in the last Harry Potter book, really.

Our aim for the afternoon was to reach a mountain hut near the summit. As one final kick in the balls, it turned out that it was in fact on the opposite side of the summit to our approach. So, we reached the peak (1870m), but didn't stick around long before descending the other side, praying that a hut would soon materialise out of the mist. Thankfully it did after about 10 minutes (with maybe an hour of daylight remaining), and we were beckoned in by a friendly, if slightly crazy, old man.

It turned out that there were six of us in that remote shack: Amber, myself, the dude running the place, and three hikers from Iwate. Once we had got out of our drenched clothes and recovered from the more acute symptoms of exhaustion, they invited us to join them for a little picnic. Clearly, these guys were serious. They had lugged camping stoves, pans, and big cartons of sake up the mountain. Rather sheepishly, we went over and added our peanuts, crackers and cheese to the feast. It should come as no surprise that overzealous Japanese hospitality extends to mountaintops without electricity or running water: they were soon offering up their stove-cooked gyoza and refilling our cups with booze.

None of them spoke much English. Even though I was knackered, since they were being so nice to us I felt the least I could do was to try to be as sociable as possible in Japanese. Amber is only a first year, so I ended up acting as translator for her. If I say so myself, I pulled it out of the bag somewhat and the conversation went reasonably well. You know how satisfying it feels to be tucked up in bed when you can hear a storm raging outside; like you're sticking it to Nature? Well, this party had that cosy feeling amplified tenfold, as we had conquered the mountain and were now pleasantly tipsy, eating snacks in a nice dry hut. Because of our exertions, this tipsiness became outright drunkenness rather quickly, so around ten we wound up the torchlight soiree and retired to our respective corners of the hut to roll out our sleeping bags and set sail for the Land of Nod. Before doing so, however, Amber and I took a lengthy but hushed detour through the Republic of Smooch, for the first time.

Woah, reeeewind selecta! I feel I should now back up and put this development in context. Back in those snowy and uncertain days in March, Amber was one of the minority of Yamagata ALTs who didn't flee the country (though living way up in the north, she was in even less radiation-based peril than I was). During that panicky yet boring time (no-one around, no fuel to go anywhere), we started emailing each other. A lot. This kept up as the months went on, and although we saw each other at a few social events, the considerable distance between our towns meant that we never had any chance to meet one-on-one. So, this whole Mt Asahi caper was effectively an extreme first date. And one which was, as of that moment, going rather well.

We eventually got to sleep. Amber had been full of talk of getting up to see the sunrise (asahi means 'rising sun', so it did seem like the thing to do), but predictably that never happened. So we spent a leisurely morning nursing our aching legs and slightly dull heads before reluctantly kitting up again, filling our bottles from the tank of rainwater (mmm, fallout), and setting off back up to the summit and then all the way down the other side.

The rain had intensified a little (so the sunrise probably wouldn't have been up to much anyway), making the descent quite a miserable affair. While obviously going down is a lot less strenuous, one still had to be very alert to avoid slipping on the rain-slick rocks, and of course we were a lot more tired than we had been the day before. The river section, which had been an enjoyable adventure the first time around, was now a seemingly interminable grind. But finally we made it back, and thankfully my car had not hemorrhaged its petrol.

So, after a self-imposed three year hiatus (sort of; I wasn't exactly fighting the ladies off with sticks), I am back in the romance game. Exciting times. And this, you see, is why the blog has seemed so moribund of late: a) I was distracted with all the emailing, and b) I wasn't sure how too broach the subject on here. I try to avoid talking about personal stuff, particularly if it involves other people, but it would have seemed a bit evasive and disingenuous to write about climbing Mt Asahi, for example, without mentioning the Amber dimension.

There we have it. This time last year I was worried that my second year in Japan could never live up to the excitement of my first. While it hasn't been quite such a roller-coaster ride of new experiences, I've had a great time. I mean, just think of the things that didn't even make the top ten: skanking halfway up a mountain with sake bottles duct-taped to my hands, dancing around a massive taiko drum in samurai armour, chilling in an outdoor onsen with a tray of sake floating by my side... and of course, climbing Mt Fuji.

I suppose the most striking feature of this year's list is how outdoors oriented it is. I think maybe in first year I was still thinking like a city-dweller, but now that I've adjusted to life in Yamagata, I've realised that I would be a fool not to make the most of the beautiful landscape that surrounds me.

Roll on third year!


  1. Can I just point out your failure to squeeze in another 'Rinda, Rinda' reference, as I can remember an enthusiastic pogo-ing rendition of that at the karaoke.

    I'm pleased that you've had a really great and enjoyable second year, particularly with the enormous events in March that could easily have cast such a dark shadow, overcoming any opportunity to experience Japan and its culture.


  2. Excellent top ten, but what is this 'Rinda Rinda'. Is it only popular in Japan, or am I just out of touch with the kids?

  3. Rinda Rinda, alternately transliterated as Linda Linda, is a Japanese-language 1987 single by J-punk band The Blue Hearts. It is a love song dedicated to someone named Linda, and is arguably the greatest karaoke song known to man. Its chorus consists only of the word "R(L)inda" sung repeatedly.

  4. I am disappointed at the lack of "Rinda Rinda" in this half of the list. Next time you scale a mountain, I want you to be singing it at the peak!!!