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Golden Week, Part One

May 9, 2012

For the first half of Golden Week, which lasted from Saturday, April 28th, until the evening of Monday, April 30th, Jess and I hopped into the car and got out of 古河市 (Koga-shi) for a little while. Early Saturday morning, we drove to Tsukuba to find the electronics store we visited the previous week, since the electronic dictionary Jess bought didn’t come with a charger of any sort when it definitely was supposed to. Along the way we Skyped her parents through her phone, so they had a taste of what it looked like driving through our part of Japan. It’s so amazing what technology can do these days! Once we got to Tsukuba, though, we had some slight difficulty finding the store again because the first time we went was completely by accident! Using our internal GPS’s and the map we pulled up on her phone, however, we eventually found it and got the charger situation taken care of.

We got back in the car and drove all the way to Mito, which is capital city of Ibaraki prefecture. Our plan was to meet Joey and Lisa, two girls Jess met at training, who live nearby. They told us to park next to the lake, and that we would meet at the cafe. Since Jess and I arrived a bit early, and they were still on the road, we decided to take a walk around the lake. It turns out that this particular lake is famous for it’s swans — both black and white. The Japanese word for “swan” is 白鳥 (hakuchou), the first character meaning “white,” and the second meaning, “bird.” Get it? “Swan” –> “white bird.” However, that words doesn’t quite apply to black swans! At the time, I didn’t know what black swans would be called and joked that they probably were called something like 黒鳥 (kokuchou), or “black bird.” Imagine my surprise later when I found out that was true! My guess is that I probably learned it once upon a time, and pulled it from the deep recesses of my memory.

Since the lake is so popular for its swans, it’s logical that it would also have lots of swan boats! When we went, it seemed that they weren’t really in service, but the next time I go to Mito I want to go in a swan boat!


Look! You can see my shadow!

Black swans.

About forty minutes later we received word that Joey and Lisa were close, so we headed in the direction of the cafe. After a short while, Joey and Lisa arrived and I officially met them over swan-shaped pastries. They attended the same university back in England, and somehow ended up getting placed in the same town. If that was coincidence, it was a pretty neat one!

They’re both cream puffs, but the darker one has black sesame in it.

Once we finished eating, we decided to walk over to the Mito station to go to the Starbucks located nearby. Jess and I don’t have a Starbucks in Koga-shi, and we really wanted 抹茶ラテ (maccha late)! If you want to know what that is, take a look here.

As we were passing through the station, though, a big sign that read Jupiter caught my eye, and I got really, really excited. Jupiter is a foreign imports store here in Japan, and it had two locations that I would go to when I studied abroad in Kyoto. I immediately made a beeline for the spices and seasonings section after the others agreed that it might be neat to go inside. I eventually settled on purchasing some bay leaves, rosemary, and thyme. You would be surprised at how difficult it is to get seasonings like that here in Japan! I often go to two different grocery stores, and I’m able to find basil and oregano just fine, but those other seasonings are so hard to come by!

With our purchases in hand, we headed to Starbucks where Jess and I could finally fulfill our cravings for 抹茶ラテ, and we were so happy to do so! The four of us sat down and chatted for a while before making our plans for the night. We decided on having dinner at a sushi restaurant near Joey’s and Lisa’s apartments, so we walked back to the cars and Jess and I followed them to 常陸大宮市 (Hitachi-Oomiya-shi). We sat down for a really fun 回転寿司 (kaiten zushi) dinner, where I was able to have my favorite かっぱ巻き (kappa maki)!

All throughout the afternoon, Joey and Lisa were in contact with their friend Kris, who also attended their university, but is teaching in Japan through the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. He was the fifth member to round out our group for the weekend. He was taking the train from Kamagaya, which is in Chiba prefecture. When you look at a map, you can see that it’s a pretty long train ride! The four of us decided to head to Joey and Lisa’s apartment complex, and get settled there. Joey and Lisa only live a few doors down from each other, so we decided to have one giant sleepover in Lisa’s apartment.

We finally received word from Kris that he was approaching Hitachi-Oomiya-shi, so Joey went to pick him up from the station while the rest of us just sat around Lisa’s table and relaxed. It didn’t take very long for the two of them to get back and they joined us around the table. We stayed up until well after midnight talking about everything and nothing, and then we stood up to set up the futons. At that moment I spotted a cockroach crawling around where we were just sitting! Bleargh. Joey quickly captured it and brought it outside while the rest of us made a quick check to make sure there weren’t any more cockroaches before setting up the futon. The five of us managed to find an arrangement where we all fit without any crazy body contortions, though I did wake up with a foot in my face partway through the night! I won’t say whose, though… You know who you are!

On Sunday we woke up at around 9:00, and got to showering and getting ready for the bed. For breakfast, we used a たこ焼き (takoyaki) maker, but instead of using たこ焼き batter and pieces of octopus, we used pancake batter and pieces of chocolate! I’ve given it the name, チョコ焼き (chokoyaki). We also dined on fruit and yogurt, so I believe it was a pretty successful breakfast. As we were eating, we made our plans for the day, which consisted of driving to Daigo-machi to see a famous waterfall, called 袋田の滝 (Fukuroda no taki), and climbing the mountain that the waterfall flows down. After a quick stop to buy some lunches to carry with us, we got into the car and drove forty minutes or so to Daigo-machi.

Seeing the waterfall was absolutely amazing, and climbing the mountain was breathtaking in more than one way! Since there were so many stairs going up the mountain, it was quite a workout. The stairs started out as metal contraptions set up next to the mountain, but the further up we got they changed into cut pieces of stone placed into the mountainside. In addition, as someone who is very afraid of heights, there were moments where I stopped on the way up and thought to myself, “Why am I doing this again?” and had to muster up some more motivation to keep trekking on. My main reasoning was that I didn’t want to have to turn around and go down all of those scary stairs again! The trail we followed had fourteen checkpoints, number seven being at the top of the mountain.

The first few flights of stairs.

An extra path you could take to see a fantastic view, which you can see…

… here!

So many stairs!

We sat down to eat lunch at Checkpoint Seven and enjoyed the view (or I tried as much as I could before needing to look away) as we did so. Once we were rested up, we began the trip down. Just a few hundred yards down the mountain from where we sat and ate was a small temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. I stopped to ring the bell and say thank you for letting me get that far, and please help me get all the way down! Just past the temple was this beautiful forest, filled with such tall trees! The sun was setting by this point, so they were illuminated so beautifully. The pictures I took just don’t do the forest justice. I felt like I was in a Studio Ghibli film — either My Neighbor Totoro or Princess Mononoke!

Kris and the temple.

This is the background on my computer right now.

Nestled in a little outcropping beneath the temple was a giant bell. It was a very neat picture, with the sunset behind the bell. We didn’t see any sign saying that we couldn’t ring it, so each of us had a turn to climb the steps. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you’re in such a beautiful setting and then a single deep gong from the bell begins to resonate through the forest. It’s something you can’t readily recreate, that’s for sure!

Lisa ready to ring the bell.

We continued our way down the mountain along sloping paths, which were quite welcome after having to hike up so many stairs! Though, it did come with its obstacles. At one point we wove our way through some boulders and later on down the path we needed to climb over a fallen tree. The five of us were pretty relieved when we finally got back to the car, but our day wasn’t finished yet! We drove back to the apartment to clean up, and then went to the カラオケ (karaoke) building to sing our hearts out. It was a blast, and we were up until about two in the morning. When we had enough, we walked back to the apartment and went to bed– after checking that there weren’t any cockroaches, of course!

The next morning we woke up at around 9:00, and Jess and I packed our things up, loaded the car, and went back to Koga. Although we had Monday off, we still had school on Tuesday and Wednesday! On our way back, though, we spotted some 鯉のぼり (koinobori), which are carp-shaped streamers, from the road as we were passing through Motegi. And beneath the streamers appeared to be quite the shindig! So, we decided to pull over and see what all the fuss was about. It turned out there was some sort of festival going on, so we meandered about a bit to take pictures, eat ice cream, and buy some pottery. We soon were back on the road though, and arrived in Koga in the early evening to give the both of us some time to start getting into the teaching mindset for the next day.

At the festival in Motegi.

This has to be one of my favorite pictures.

Koinobori with no wind.

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent at TES (Tuesday Elementary School) and WES (Wednesday Elementary School), respectively, and they were full teaching days on my part. I stayed until my contracted time on Tuesday, even though a bunch of teachers had already disappeared. I have no idea if they just left early or if there was some teachers’ activity going on. Anyway, Wednesday was pretty much the same except that my schedule also consisted of my first teachers’ training! On Wednesdays after school ends, the teachers all gather in the 職員室 (shokuinshitsu), the teacher’s room, so I can teach them games that I would use in my English classes.

My plan for that day was to teach them Simon Says, Telephone, and a game called Janken King, which is a Rock, Paper, Scissors game. To help illustrate how the games would get used in class, I had the teachers do the exact same activities that I had my students do that day. For example, my lesson with the 5th graders that day included a review of saying, “Hello! My name is ____. Nice to meet you,” so the remaining five or six students would pair off and greet each other in front of the class. If there was an odd number, one lucky student got to partner with me! In the teacher’s training, I did the exact same thing with them, which was especially fun for me to watch while they were playing Telephone and running around whispering, “porcupine!”

To explain, in my self-introduction lesson that I give my very first day of meeting my students, I teach them the names of five animals that are found in Wisconsin: Bear, Eagle, Porcupine, Fox, and Eagle. For some reason, the students all love the word, “porcupine!” and they’ll run up to me at some of my schools and excitedly say, “Carolyn-sensei! Carolyn-sensei! POAR-KYUU-PINE.” I absolutely love it. If there’s only one thing my students take from my lessons, I sure hope that it’s “porcupine.”

Well, we’ve reached the end of this post. Thanks for sticking through until this point! I know it’s a lot to read. I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about my first part of Golden Week and be sure to stay tuned for my post about the second part!

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