Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Journey to Beng Mealea

Saturday, April 16th, 2011 by Steph

When someone invites you to join them on an epic journey to see a temple half-devoured by forest there is only one correct answer: When are we leaving?

I recently undertook such a trip with three fellow housemates and co-workers. I steeled myself for a long and arduous ride; I’m unaccustomed to biking 80 km at a stretch, and I had no idea what terrain was in store for me, or how well I would hold up under the increasingly warm Cambodian sun. All I knew was that it was supposed to be a 7-hour ride. Let the adventure begin.

We left early in the morning, to avoid the punishing heat of midday. As we cycled outside of the periphery of Siem Reap, highway gave way to side streets gave way to red dusty roads which wound through a maze of markets and villages. We were thankful to follow the lead of our Khmer friend, Chor (or Joe, if you like). As the kilometers sped by, he expounded on whatever facets of Cambodian culture came to mind, from the proper storage of rice, to the prevalence of bald old ladies, to the long white flags which indicate a funeral.

About an hour in to our ride, Joe made a sharp right turn, pulled up short and invited himself into a stranger’s yard. He beckoned to us – come see how rice noodles are made.

Our unexpected presence was warmly welcomed, and we witnessed an elegantly simple process, to which we were immediately initiated:
Step 1: Mash rice into a sticky paste.
Step 2: Fill sieve with paste, and use plunger to extrude long strings of the stuff into boiling water.
Step 3: Remove noodles when they begin to float. Season simply with chili and salt.

The ladies pushed fresh noodles upon us and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We happily sat in our new friend’s front yard, mouths full of happiness and hearts full of gratitude.

After this quick pit stop, we continued on through villages, weaving back and forth amongst the steady stream of traffic: trucks loaded up with improbably large pigs. Motos piled high with more mattresses than physics would seem to allow. Pickups packed with young women heading to and from work.

Monks were out in abundance, speeding by on motos, passing by on foot with containers for rice. We passed many a wat decorated for Magha Puja. Perhaps this holiday also explained the prevalence of households making rice noodles, a phenomenon we continued to see along our route with startling regularity. A few front yards even sported a see-saw type contraption, each one loaded up with 3 or 4 children eager to mix play with mashing rice.

At the cashew tree with a clutch of piglets underneath (the cutest I’ve ever seen), we hung a right onto an unforgiving road with little shade and a red washboard surface. The roadside houses had disappeared, replaced by parched shrubbery eagerly awaiting the rainy season. The journey at this point was between us, the road, and the sun. Infrequent stops for sugarcane juice (with a delicate hint of citrus and rust) provided just enough energy to propel us forward.

And then before I knew it: we had arrived. After only 4 hours, we had reached our destination, Beng Mealea. We celebrated our good fortune with more sugarcane juice (whyever not?) and sat for a spell to catch our breath. We proceeded to our homestay, a modest abode perched on long cement legs to accommodate the rainy season. Water buffalo munched single-mindedly in the front yard. Dogs surrendered to the heat of the afternoon, belly up in a sea of dust.

We retired to a small room with a wooden floor, an annex of the larger room where our hosts sleep. We were shown the shower: a full water basin upon which floats a small bowl in a cement room with a single hole in the corner for drainage. This met my needs. I began to scour the layers of red dirt from my knees and down my shins, and it was at that precise moment that the sky opened up to dump bucketfuls of water upon us all. This was the first rain of the season, which we chose to interpret as a good omen. While the rain would have been a welcome relief to a pack of hot and tired bikers, we were just as glad to have arrived before the downpour, and took comfort in hearing it crash and bang against the tin roof over our heads.

After a late lunch and sucking down the contents of a cold coconut, we retired to lazily wait out the heat of the afternoon. I made a passing attempt at sleep, but instead lay down, closed my eyes and took in the sounds of the neighborhood. A saw mill was running next door. Dogs punctuated the calm of the afternoon with a ruckus now and again. Chickens generated a farmy hum.

The rest of the evening passed without much consequence. Our hosts kindly fed us a savory porridge which served quite nicely for dinner. They told us about their children, who have mostly left home to start their own families. The father of the house is the only one left from his generation. He never had a chance to pursue education: the Khmer Rouge had required him to plant rice to the exclusion of all else. He now enthusiastically encourages his children to pursue what he could not. With this sober history in mind, we ascended to the balcony at dusk, candles in hand, set up mosquito nets, and passed the rest of the evening discussing Cambodia’s recent past while the nearby pagoda incongruously blared dance music late into the night.

I fell asleep on the wooden floor, only to be woken by chanting at 5am. This suited me just fine, as the plan was to be at Beng Mealea at the crack of dawn, before the tour buses started to swarm the place. We made it to the temple around 7am, the first ones on the scene. I soon found myself alone in the midst of strewn rocks and collapsed arches, listening to the jungle wake up and come to life. I enjoyed 30 minutes of this glorious solitude, where I could imagine that I was the first person to have stumbled upon this temple (Indiana Jane, as my Dad would say), until the tourists started trickling in.

Beng Mealea looks like some forgotten world out of a fairy tale. Unlike its close cousin Angkor Wat, you can climb all over the temple grounds. There are no risers for pictures. There are no guide ropes which dictate where you can and cannot go. Swallowed by forest, rediscovered only 10 years ago, it still retains a bit of wildness and mystery. The grounds are littered with broken naga, the 7-headed snake from Cambodian mythology. I tried not to imagine how many landmines may or may not be lingering just outside of the temple periphery, and sent a silent and heartfelt thank you to the CMAC for making it possible for me to clamber safely around the rocks.

After a morning of enraptured exploration, it was time to start thinking about the long ride home. We thanked our hosts, and began to retrace our steps: we said goodbye to the nearby wat and headed towards Siem Reap, fighting our way against the steady stream of tour buses. Asphalt gave way again to red dust and rocks.

Halfway through our afternoon, we stopped at a snackstall to refuel, where we rested, roadside. An executive decision was made, and we decided to pretty much try one of everything. On offer were crunchy sweet pastries which inexplicably also had chives. Veg slaw with peanuts and chili sauce. Shaved ice with sugar syrup, condensed milk, and what looked like black-eyed peas.

And just when we were getting ready to hit the road, almost as a nonchalant afterthought, it was mentioned that a temple existed nearby, only 2 kilometers away. Anyone with an inkling about my disposition knows that the word “temple” is like catnip to me; I am incapable of turning down a visit such a place, especially if it’s within a 5 km radius. The shopkeeper pointed us in the right direction, and we were off.

The detour immediately turned from dust to sand, which meant a strenuous ride. As we struggled to stay upright, we came across old ladies pushing several carts piled high with wood, who were having a difficult time navigating the terrain with their cumbersome baggage. We dismounted and gave each cart a bit of a push, sending the ladies on their way. A gaggle of boys watched the whole production, hanging out and wiling the afternoon away.

It was then that I saw one of the boys casually fling something through the air to his friend. The distinct silhouette caught my attention. Limbs splayed, arcing languidly through the air. Did he just throw a mouse?? I took a closer look, and yes, each boy had 3 or 4 mice clenched tightly in his hands. I inquired. The rodents were going to be dinner.

After a few more minutes of stubbornly pushing through the sand, I still saw nothing. It was hard to imagine finding anything out here in the middle of nowhere. Hot and tired, we started questioning our directional capabilities. I began to make mental calculations: how much more energy and time will it take to get home, and do I have enough of both in reserve?… when we came across a puddle bisecting our path. And by puddle, I mean small pond. We pulled up short. I was thinking leeches. I was thinking tetanus. I was thinking I don’t know how deep this sinkhole goes, and who else might be living in there. Which is when our fearless leader gamely plunged in tire first, not giving the matter a second thought.

The top of his pedals were nearly submerged before the resistance of the water unseated him. We watched him dismount his bike and escort it through, forging ahead knee-deep in murky swampishness. In seconds, he was across, no big deal. The rest of us threw caution to the wind and followed suit. If Joe can do it, I’ll be damned if I’m being left behind. Sometimes peer-pressure is the only way to conquer a mental roadblock.

We pushed on for a few minutes, when we found our destination. All this time I had been on the lookout for a Buddhist wat: Bright. Ostentatious. Ornamental. Imagine my surprise when we found another Angkor-style ruin, the muted stones barely visible through the trees. This monument was smaller than Beng Mealea, but this forgotten pile of stones certainly wasn’t in any guidebook. Incredulous at our good fortune, we peeked in and clambered about on the stones (again, I sent out a nervous and silent thanks to the CMAC). In our serendipitous surroundings, we frolicked. We climbed. We played.

It was tempting to while away the rest of the afternoon lost in daydreams of Kampuchea, but the sinking sun was a reminder to hit the road. We retraced our tired steps until we reached the outskirts of Siem Reap - happy to have gone, happy to be home, our bodies spent, our minds already racing with ideas for the Next Big Adventure.ИкониikoniПодаръциикониикони

Rant from a six-hour drive

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009 by Chris

Today we drove from Los Angeles to Davis, California, a six-hour drive along mostly open highway. This gave me a lot of time to think while the car zoomed along on cruise control and many opportunities to curse the dumb design of cruise control interfaces on just about every car out there.

Cruise Control

Who designed the “standard” cruise control interface? It’s a horrible overcomplicated mishmash of awkward abbreviations and mysteriously organized functions. I can’t decide if it was put together by an over-precise engineering team or a feature-obsessed middle manager.


  • Why is the on/off switch separate from the others?1 Setting the speed requires two button presses when it should only take one.
  • What on earth is the practical difference between “off” and “cancel”?2
  • Do we really need two extra buttons to make the car go faster or slower? Cars, after all, are already graced with eminently effective and much-used speed controls. Having “accel” and “coast” buttons is like adding a joystick down on the floor so that you can steer using the feet that are left sadly idle by the operation of the cruise control.

Imagine what the cruise control UI would look like as implemented by Apple. It would be like the iPhone without the fancy screen: one button labeled ON. You hit the button, the car keeps going the current speed. Hit it again and it turns off. I can’t believe nobody has done this yet.

Cancel rant. Rant off.

1As a computer guy, I can kind of see the logic in having a separate on/off control. After all, the system is managed by a computer that needs to know whether it should be listening for commands at any given moment. Maybe, back in the dark ages of computers when cruise control was first implemented, the system may have had significant startup time, requiring a few seconds of warning to get everything in order for the “set” command. But that’s certainly not necessary today the whole car is essentially managed by computers nowadays.

2I understand the technical difference, but it’s a stupid thing to bother the user with.

England & Scotland

Sunday, August 30th, 2009 by Chris

Trip update: we’ve just completed the UK portion of our trip, spending some lovely time with the wonderful Brits we met in Noshiro during our first two years there.

The first week was in London, where we stayed with Francis, saw the sights (including the wonderfully quirky sport of Bike Polo) and gradually acclimated to life in the big city after three years outside of it.

After that, Frank accompanied us for a weekend in Oxford, where we hung out with Andy, who was coincidentally doing a summer program there as part of his law degree at the Ohio State.

Then it was a week Yorkshire to see Claire, with whom we overlapped during our first year in Japan. This portion of the trip involved visiting the eponymous York, and healthy portions of rambling and croquet. Yorkshire has been described to us as “the Texas of England” in that it has a strong independent streak and resists being characterized as part of a larger country. We are interested to see what Claire, a native Yorkshire girl, has to say about that!

Now we set out on our own to the great repressed nation of Scotland. August is festival month in Edinburgh, wherein the entire city is swamped for the ironically named Fringe Festival (which now dwarfs all the “mainstream” festivals it meant to mock when it started in the 1960s). Edinburgh is a lovely city, managing to feel ancient and modern at the same time. We spent a busy Monday through Friday cramming in as many off-the-wall performances and comedy shows as possible, with about a 50% hit rate for satisfying shows.

We had intended to spend a whole week in Edinburgh, but it was clear that five days were going to be enough. Fortunately, we were able to make a last-minute change in plans by renting a camper van from (we had seen tons of these vans in Australia last Christmas and remembered their quirky and very effective self-advertising) for about the same price that we would have been paying anyway for our Edinburgh hostel. So we spent three nights and four days driving ourselves around the Scottish Highlands, pulling off the side of the road to sleep wherever was convenient, and boy are we glad we did. This country is bursting at the seams with gorgeous hills and a truly unbelievable number of waterfalls, and not a few castles as well.

Now we are in Berlin until the end of September, and you can expect a report about that later on!

The Plan

Sunday, August 16th, 2009 by Chris

Some of you may be aware that we no longer live in Japan. Hello from the suburbs of Leeds, England! I thought I’d present a brief roundup of our current situation for those not “lucky” enough to be privy to all the messy daily evolutions of our “plans.”

The most common question, of course, is: Where next?

The short answer is: We don’t know. In fact, Steph came up with a brilliant scheme to postpone that very question: travel around the world until Christmas.

Over the years we have been lucky to befriend many lovely people with penchants for world travel. So now we’re visiting them, in this rough order:

  1. UK (August): London, Oxford, Yorkshire, Edinburgh, plus brief highland road trip
  2. Europe (September): based in Berlin + side trips to Italy and Spain
  3. Moldova (October): to visit my friend all the way back to junior high, Erin!
  4. Cambodia (November): to visit our college friend Katherine!

This is a mixed work-play holiday. I called in a “favor” at work (not really, but this is actually to the day, I think my tenth anniversary of being hired) and got a couple months off to spread over the rest of this year. The idea is to follow a pattern of a few weeks of travel and vacation, followed by a month of “settling down” somewhere where I will get some work done and Steph will do some volunteering and planning for her own future.

Right now we’re in the UK portion of the trip. We spent a week in London, a weekend in Oxford, and are now in Yorkshire staying with our friend and fellow Noshiro ALT, Claire. Next week it’s off to Edinburgh and after that, a month in Berlin, staying in a lovely cheap apartment found on Craigslist!

In the long term, we’ll be home for Christmas probably in California, but who knows. After that, the book is completely unwritten. Where we end up is mostly down to Steph’s job prospects, so I’ll let her write about that!

We’ll try to keep you up to date as the trip progresses!

Back in the USSA

Friday, July 31st, 2009 by Steph

If you’re going to move from the Middle of Nowhere, Japan back to your home country of America, there’s probably no better place than Los Angeles to fully embrace all that culture shock has to offer. Amidst the hubbub of the big city, reeling under the influence of jet lag, I had difficulty creating a coherent thought. Numb and overstimulated, I could only think: big. loud. bright. backwards.

Have I been changed in any permanent, meaningful way by my 3 years abroad? Probably, but whatever. It’s the little things I’m confronted with on a day-to-day basis that fascinate me now. Firstly, you’ll have to forgive me: I am slightly disoriented because the air doesn’t smell like fish. I am embarrassed by the degree to which I am in awe of raspberries. Portion sizes seemed to have quintupled overnight (look, a salad twice as big as your head! Good luck, friend!) Also? Flushing a public toilet by hand seems unspeakably vulgar, now that I’ve become accustomed to flushing squatters by foot.

We’re only here in the US for 3 days before we leave the country again, so I feel little need to acclimate to my homeland. Instead, I spend my time obsessing over every odd little detail. Everyone gets a menu when eating in restaurants, revolutionary! Soap and paper towels in public restrooms, brilliant! I can explain nuances clearly and competently to my doctor, fantastic!

But a more sinister side of America has started to manifest. Isn’t it unsanitary to wear one’s shoes into the bathroom? Why are you prescribing me medicine I can totally do without for $400 that I clearly can’t afford? Why, in a country fighting an epic battle with obesity, does it cost $15 to go to the gym for the day? And when I arrived in LA, I witnessed a street so clogged with traffic that a fire engine literally could not get through to its destination. How is that a workable plan? Why has this city not yet burnt down to the ground in a puff of smoke? And why does the main topic of conversation seem to be about all the stuff people have bought and how they can buy more?

It’s a novelty to be able to buy nearly anything I need with a credit card, but living in a country with tips means I can’t get rid of the spare change which increasingly weighs down my wallet. The frenzied rush of the LA freeway system, which functions on a totally different level from the equally crazy landscape of Japanese driving, also takes some getting used to.

The California public schools, I am surprised to note, are gorgeous! No prison block educational facilities here to insult the eye. Small community parks are green and luscious instead of bare patches of dirt. The backwardness of this confuses me though: it is a desert here in LA. Shouldn’t we have the parks made of dirt, and Japan have the lush green grassy expanses for kids to play on…?

And then there’s that weird SoCal phenomenon: the perfect 72-degree day with cloudless skies that stretch blue and flawless to the horizon. The first day of this weather was glorious, but after 3 days I began to get twitchy; it seemed unnatural after coming from Japan where I felt I’d been living under a little grey raincloud for 3 years. It only adds insult to injury to Noshiro, which was still probably drying out from the flood less than a week before (the second flood to hit that tiny town in two years).

Where, may I ask, are the cats on leashes? The onsens to soothe the aches and pains from lugging 80kg of luggage by hand across the Pacific? Where are the grannies bent over nearly in half with their pushcarts, elbowing people in the ribs as they plow through a crowd or brazenly stopping traffic as they meander out into the road? Where are the ubiquitous vending machines (they seem to have been replaced with an ample sprinkling of trash cans, a fair trade in my mind). And then of course, there is the soul-crushing smog, which brings us to the Californian existential question: Is it possible to fully enjoy perfect weather if you can’t see the horizon?

And not to belabor the point, but where’s my cashmoney, America? My bank seems to have vaporized sometime in the last year when I wasn’t looking. Washington Mutual, where are you? I thought you were going to meet me with flowers at the airport? I can only hope that the remnants of my life savings are floating around in the aether somewhere waiting for me to reclaim them when I return home this winter, ready to exchange cash for goods and services for my loved ones this holiday season.

A few more words on:

When I arrived in Japan, I grudgingly got the cheapest cell phone and payment plan possible. I’d never had a cell phone before, but I quickly grew to love it (you most of all, emoji!). Sadly, J-phones aren’t really designed to outlast the attention span of the average consumer (which is like 3 days), and at the end of my 3-year tenure, my phone was rebelling. The battery refused to remain charged. It also developed a rather suspicious-looking bulge which was getting bigger by the day, leaving me to nervously wonder when it was going to burst in a shower of battery acid.

Now that I’ve canceled my phone service abroad and gone through this exact process again in the states and I have to say, my new American cell phone… it sucks beans. Like an old friend I just can’t say goodbye to, my old J-phone is tucked away safely in storage. In the ruckus of repatriation however, I forgot to remove and dispose of the suspect battery. The worrisome bulge is probably still growing in my absence like some kind of space alien baby.

In Japan, there were some hoops to jump through regarding food, for sure. Everyone deals with the scarcity of non-processed cheese, for one. And zucchini can only be procured during an obscenely short interval at the end of summer (pumpkin and daikon are, of course, available at any time). Some foreign foods, like Thai and Mexican are pretty much non-existent. So when I stepped into a Trader Joe’s a few days ago, I nearly wept with joy at the diversity I saw on the shelves. However, trolling the supermarket aisles later I was overwhelmed by the mind-numbing variety: do we really need Flamin’ Hot Cheetos con Limon and Cheddar Jalapeno Cheetos? Would America be any less complete if we did away with the whole aisle in the grocery store dedicated to Oreos and perhaps replaced it with only a pack or two? The variety of edible products really seems to have proliferated to an absurd degree in our absence.

When I first moved to Japan, I found the new language overwhelming. My brain overloaded as it tried to sift through all the text seen and sentences heard and come out with something sensical. And it would grind to a screeching halt every time. After 3 years in northern Tohoku, I’ve learned to filter efficiently: focus on the pertinent, and ignore the rest. But upon arriving in LA, I find that I’m experiencing the same phenomenon all over again, only in reverse. I’m compelled to read everything, listen to everything just because I can. Advertisements for real estate. Strangers’ conversations. Sensationalist TV shows on FOX. And this effortless and immediate ability to comprehend everything is, frankly, wearing me out.

I felt the old puritanical attitudes toward alcohol come flooding back as I sat in my favorite brewery, void of ID. Imagine my embarrassment when at 32, I had to ask my dad to order beer for me. I then covertly sipped said beer from a straw because I know how fierce California establishments are about monitoring underage drinking. I’d grown complacent after all those izakaya visits and forgotten to bring either my passport or my drivers’ license. At 32, why can I not just order beer in this country? You’d think the grey hairs on my head would be proof enough (although now that I think about it, some of my 12-year-old students in Japan sport more grey than I).

For the first time in my life, I felt average-sized in Japan, as I’m only slightly below average in height and slightly above average in other bodily dimensions there. In America, I feel categorically small again. I’m not sure how to feel about this. I can easily find clothes that fit me again (yay!) but I am no longer the bustiest girl in the room by default (boo). I’m no longer comparing myself to the stick-thin girls I was surrounded by in Japan (yay!) but I have zero visibility now when in a crowd (boo).

You may be tempted at this point to ask: Where next? All of this culture-comparing is nice and all, but where are you going to live, girl? To which my response is: Run away! Yes, I’m avoiding such weighty questions by going on the gap year adventure that I was too serious and focused to take when I was actually 22. We’ll be gone for 4-5 months (I promised the fam I’d be home this Christmas) while we visit our friends living far and wide. Hopefully, whatever comes next in life will sort itself out in the meantime.

Wish us luck, stay in touch, and see you on the other side!

While I’m slightly below average in height and slightly above average in other bodily dimensions in Japan, in America I feel categorically small again.

We I like sex (Make up for adultery)

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 by Steph

After two years of living in the same small community, it can sometimes feel like I’ve exhausted everything there is to do in Akita. The seasons may shift, the tides ebb and flow, I change my clothes every once in a while. But I still can’t shake this feeling of repetition, like I’m condemned to bike the same roads, wave to the same children, and teach the same classes over and over and over again. Which is why I’m always thrilled whenever I discover something that is genuinely new to me.

Take, for example, the main bridge in town, which crosses the Yoneshiro river. I bike over this guy all the time. I’ve watched sunsets and fireworks from this span. I drive over it on my way to onsens, to schools, to Aomori. But I’d never actually been under it before, until last week, when curiosity seized me, and I ducked under its low 4-foot clearance. Here, I found ample evidence that English is alive and well Noshiro, as well as graffiti, which has always been eerily absent in town, with the exception of this one scrawl by the river. Apparently high school students are incredibly motivated by the topic of sex (shocker!) and want nothing more than to tell you all about it in English. On the far side of the bridge, you can find a lovely “Welcome Motherfucker” salutation. This wasn’t the first thing I saw when I moved to Noshiro, but I kind of wish it had been.

Another recent eye-opener involves these discrete black, white and yellow signs that are posted throughout the countryside. They’re so discrete, in fact, that I didn’t really even notice them until a few months ago. Then I began to see them everywhere… the distinctive color scheme and the concise, clean design kept catching my eye. Last weekend, I went on a quest to photograph as many of these signs as I could find, and translate them when I had some free time. On a 20 km bike ride between Noshiro and the neighboring town of Futatsui, I found 11 specimens, often on old neglected buildings covered with corrugated metal, or next to these red and white “Orion*” signs which advertise the availability of “life loans”. What did it all mean?

Herein lies the beauty of the foreign language: when you first see signs in a language you don’t know, everything looks romantic and foreign and lovely. When I moved to Japan two years ago, I was thrilled to ride my bike down streets chock-full of atmospheric signs declaring: タバコ、お酒、おもしろ館. Now that I’ve become more proficient in Japanese, I know better: these signs are just hawking cigarettes, alcohol, and porn, just like everywhere else in the world. Comprehension is great, but sometimes, you lose a little innocence when you translate.

Such is the case with my mystery signs, because I found to my surprise when I translated them that they were advocating Christianity. Which is fine in and of itself, but some of the messages were a little pointed for my taste, including “Sin’s reward is death” and “Make up for adultery. Jesus Christ“. Before, these signs were just part of the scenery in the Japanese countryside, but now every time I see one, I feel like I’m being asked to consider my status as a sinner. It’s a little unnerving.

So, yes, there’s a slight loss of innocence there. But being able to understand these signs brings up a whole new intriguing set of questions. Christianity was banned in Japan until the Meiji era, and Christians (according to Wikipedia ;) ) make up about 1% of the population here today. Consider for a moment that the average frequency of these signs in my neighborhood is 1 every 2 kilometers. Where do they all come from? A little internet research reveals that these signs are not just in Akita, or even Tohoku, but that they can be found all over Japan.

As an outside observer with little emotional investment in the signs’ message itself, I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Who put these signs here? Are the owners of all these buildings Christian? Or are they indicative of a vigorous canvassing campaign? Why do I see these signs mostly in the countryside, but not so much in big cities? Discuss potential scenarios amongst yourselves, and let me know what you come up with… in the meantime, I’ll be out cruising the country roads, looking for another sign from (or at least about) God.

*FYI, while this company’s name originally appeared to be “Orion” in a funky English font, upon closer inspection it is actually “マルフク” in a funky Japanese font. Go figure.

Dos and Donts of the Road

Friday, August 15th, 2008 by Steph

Even though in your heart of hearts, you want to travel all 280 km from Noshiro to Aomori City by pedal power alone, do take a car along on your first long-distance bike trek. Do bring friends and travel in packs, terrorizing innocent bystanders in narrow countryside streets with your badass gaijin bicycle gang. Do stop for ice cream at every opportunity, even if the only available flavor is carrot. Do keep an eye out for monkeys crossing the street, and continue to stare in awe as they nonchalantly disappear with a rustle into the trees.

Don’t be so goal-oriented that you neglect to stop and explore the Shinto shrines tucked away by the side of the road. Do imitate superheros at every available opportunity. Do accept the vacuum sealed cobs of cooked corn from the nice man at the restaurant who just took an hour and a half to make you 4 pizzas. Don’t attempt to eat them, however, (the corn, not the pizza) as mold has infiltrated the packages and is inching its way between the starchy kernels.

When you realize that you have two more hours of biking to reach your hotel and only half an hour before check-in, do ditch your bikes in the boiler room behind the local temple gift shop and hoof it by car to your destination. Don’t feel guilty; it’s not cheating, you’re on vacation.

If at all possible, do reserve a room in a swanky onsen hotel for one night. Do take full advantage of the private onsen on your porch overlooking the Japanese-style garden as the sun sets. Do try to eat everything that is brought to your room for dinner, though this will take a good part of the night, as you wade through a cornucopia of sashimi, sea urchin, grilled fish, savory custards, abalone, pickles, rice and hotpot soups.

When you resume biking, and you pass a bus full of Japanese children on the road, DO make sure you ham it up by mimicking the one physical punch-line of every Japanese comedian you’ve never seen. This will bring you good karma with the transportation gods.

Do visit Goshogawara for their Tachineputa festival. Do arrive before dark so you can stroll down the street where festival floats are lined up and float pullers are diligently preparing for the night ahead. Do get a good look at the crazy vertical hair that the good people of Goshogawara force upon their children. Don’t expect to find much in the way of dinner. And for god’s sake, DON’T mess with the policemen. They are cranky and not happy to be working crowd control. Also… don’t idly stand in front of any food stalls while watching the festival or you will be soundly bitch-slapped by the authorities.

Do reserve a room in Aomori City for the Nebuta festival, and do it as soon as possible, say, early April. Do take advantage of the bleachers that hotels have set out just for their hotel guests. Do catch bells thrown by members of the parade for good luck. Don’t miss the ample product placement by convenience stores and beer companies. Do feel free to laugh at the effeminate gymnasts in full body unitards who want you to buy their particular brand of sports drink. Don’t spend too much time wondering how someone snuck an Egyptian pharaoh into the parade.

Do have more than a passing understanding of the festival schedule. Don’t assume that all parades are at night, and don’t park underground only to find when you’re ready to leave town that the exits have been closed off for a mid-afternoon parade for the next two hours. Don’t get grumpy when this happens to you. Hug a traffic cone instead. It understands your plight. Do understand that most of these week long nebuta festivals will probably culminate with an afternoon (not evening) parade. Corollary: Don’t be surprised when you drive to Hirosaki on the last day of Neputa only to find a ghost town when you arrive at night.

Do go into the Spanish restaurant you find while looking for okonomiyaki. Do eat the entire two baskets of bread and fresh butter that miraculously appear at your table. You’ve lived in Japan for two years. You’re worth it. Do order copious amounts of the lovely cinnamony sangria that is beckoning to you from the menu. It is just as good as you imagine.

Do go to as many onsens as possible while you’re in Aomori, but DON’T expect them to have soap and shampoo. This, apparently, is a quaint Akitan custom. Don’t pick your onsens indiscriminately or you may find yourself in the Onsen Of Death, where the air is saturated with steam hotter than hell itself.

Do take a ferry to tiny fishing villages in the middle of nowhere. Don’t listen to the guy at the dock who claims that you have no time to stop and pet dogs before the ferry returns to pick you up. Do find a tiny shack of a lunch place to order and conquer the uni-don. Do listen to the cute old lady who’s serving you lunch when she tells you that you’re about to miss the one and only ferry back the mainland. Don’t forget to buy a few kakigori on the way out the door to thank her for her kindness and attention to detail.

Do set out on your return trip home on a bike with gears, if your return trip involves biking over the Shirakami mountains. Do be on your best behavior at all times when traveling, as you will inexplicably run into your landlord’s neighbor and several members of your taiko group, even though you are cycling far from home. Don’t pull into a rest stop swarming with cops if you are a foreigner driving without a license. Do lose your bike tire patching kit in lieu of actually popping a tire. Do make the slight detour to view fields of tri-tone rice that form a giant canvas upon which famous Japanese masterpieces are re-created.

Don’t hesitate to stop at a friend’s house to crash, covering his entire floor with futons for the night. Do recuperate from your travels at a local bar, sipping on beers from Belgium and Mexico while you watch the opening ceremonies of the Chinese Olympics, surrounded by friends from Canada, India, and Japan.

Do breathe in the intoxicating summer air, thick with the smell of greenery growing furiously under a bright blue sky as you return home. On your last day out, do find as many dead ends as you can, while you follow your river back home through the countryside, thus elongating your trip as much as possible. Don’t forget to look for herons tucked stealthily among the rice fields. Do stop for a moment to marvel at the din of chirping cicadas screaming over each other to be heard, their collective discord making the air shimmer in a tapestry of sound.

Do return home exhausted and collapse on your couch with schemes for future bike trips already taking shape in your head, the last thing you remember before sleep claims your weary limbs.


Thursday, July 24th, 2008 by Chris

I literally just returned from my two-week trip to Boston and Buffalo, and moments after sitting down at the computer… another earthquake! The epicenter was in the same prefecture, Iwate, as the previous big one about a month ago. Poor Iwate.

This one was a little scary because this time, Stephanie wasn’t here in Akita. She and our friend Andy took a road trip to Aomori, and were located much closer to the epicenter than Noshiro. (They are in the armpit of the large axe-shaped peninsula at the top of the island.) Not to worry though; Steph called and assured me everything is all right.

I should also mention that there was a big one in the same region, but a ways off shore, just last week! That makes three in just over a month, all about the same 7-ish magnitude. Definitely some major correction going on in the earth’s crust around eastern Tohoku.

JPop 101

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008 by Steph

To get more of a flavor for the JPop School of Japanese Studies, below is a cross-section of my, um, homework.



Wednesday, April 9th, 2008 by Steph

Now this may surprise all of you (ok, none of you), but I am actually not all that interested in war. And I don’t mean starting them or watching them, but studying them and learning about them. Perhaps this lack of interest could be traced back to any number of uninspiring history teachers in my past. Or the fact that history class never really seemed to get past WWI, from an almost exclusively European standpoint. So when I was informed that I should check out the war memorials, the war bunkers, and the war museums during my upcoming trip to Okinawa, I politely nodded yes on the outside and then quickly jettisoned the notion of doing anything remotely related to WWII on my much needed vacation. I was going to see culture, dammit, and see a slice of paradise. Why ruin a good thing with something so depressing?