Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sending off the Sakura

For the last week and a half my little town of Ikeda has been host to the cherry blossom season.
I have been hearing about this cherry blossom thing since I arrived in Japan. And during the cold winter months it was a highly anticipated event.

Japanese is the best adjective I can think of to describe the beauty of cherry blossoms. The trees are a well manicured kind of pretty, arrive in a timely fashion, and function well in group settings.

"During the Heian period (794–1191), the Japanese nobility sought to emulate many practices from China, including the social phenomenon of flower viewing (hanami: 花見), where the imperial households, poets, singers, and other aristocrats would gather and celebrate under the blossoms. In Japan, cherry trees were planted and cultivated for their beauty."

Last weekend I was lucky enough to climb the thousands of stairs up to Hashikura temple to take part in a traditional cherry blossom festival.
I watched Monks throw rice balls as people eagerly jumped and dove to grab them in hopes to find one with a wooden block inside, thus earning the receiver a prize.
Once the throwing began I choose to put away my camera and eventually take a few steps back as things became increasingly aggressive.

And when the weekend ended and Sunday's rain fell, the cherry blossoms began to fall too.
Now most of the petals are collected on the bottom of my shoes and the floor of my car.

"In Japan, the cherry blossoms are believed to exemplify the transient nature of life because of their short blooming times."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cha Ching

After a 30 minute train ride and doing my make-up in the reflective metal part of the toilet paper dispenser in the train bathroom, Julia and Jordan met Brad and I at the Osaka station.

Julia is spending her second year in Northern Japan and Jordan flew all the way from Philadelphia to create some magical moments. The following morning four crazies from PA took that familiar bus ride from Osaka to Naruto.

And I was reminded of why Japan is a pretty sweet deal.
$ When all else fails, there is always the big money $. And by money I mean good times with good people in a place (Japan) that everyone can agree is relatively weird.
That weekend Naruto was host to English conversation, at rapid speeds, without awkward moments which created some special times indeed.
This is a classic Naruto shot near the brown apartments:
Then some of this happened:

Then karaoke happened:
Which was all thanks to Julia's determination to have some fun. A notion I was quick to give up on as soon the hunt for a karaoke venue turned into a challenge.

And the next day half the folks boarded a bus for the big cities of Honshu while the other half stayed on the island of Shikoku.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

New Zealand: Car vs. Tent

On March 20th I got on a plane that was headed for Auckland, New Zealand with Brad at my side. In the early morning hours of March 21st we got off the Cathy Pacific flight.

New Zealand welcomed Brad and I with a late summer sun. We sleepily wondered around Auckland, staring at all the people that looked strangely familiar. They were tall, of various body shapes, and they had different hair colors.

We stumbled upon a market where I found a cute girl, about my age, selling vintage clothes. We struck up a casual conversation about our love for old lady fashion and the other girl that was in the fitting room began handing me shorts that she thought I might want to take behind the curtain and put on.

I tried them on and the other two ladies with womanly curves stared at me, telling me how cute I looked in everything because I was so skinny. I said thank you as we all looked in the same mirror, but thank you does not begin to cover the flood of emotions I felt.

It has been eight months since I have had a casual conversation with someone based only on the fact that they appeared to be a person with specific similar interests as me. The vintage clothes girl was one of many Western people around and her English was … native.
And I have gotten used to people telling me I am of a good size … for an American. Homesickness for such comfortable conversation began to sink in within the first few hours in New Zealand.

I walked away after purchasing a dress and scoring the shorts for free. Brad later described these finds as something that looked like they had come out of a garbage bag of the few things that were salvaged from a house fire- and not in a hip ironic way but, in just a bad way.

We then took advantage of the sunny rays as we searched the city for all the essentials for a barefoot picnic.

The next morning we picked up our rental car. The feelings of love for the car were instantaneous and mutual.
We had requested a smaller car but we were upgraded for no charge. The bigger size car increased gas prices, but it was well worth it as it became our pantry, closet, vanity, simple shelter, and of course, transportation.

That day we drove about 280 km to Tongariro National Park. As the moon rose, we put up the tent, blew up our sleeping mats, and unrolled our sleeping bags for the first of many nights of camping.

We began our 7 hour hike at about 11 a.m. the next day.

I zipped my fleece over my wool sweater and pulled my scarf around my neck. I applied sunscreen to my nose and checks, choosing to ignore the fate of constant summer sunburns that is given to all redheads, who do not apply massive amounts of sunscreen on a day that will certainly lead to discarding garments.

Before that pain set in, I had no idea the beauty I was in for on the hike.

About half way into the walk we reached the base of the volcano.

I took this (above) moment to strike an attitude (ballet pose) which was appropriate due to the nasty mood I had woken up in that morning.

Once we spotted the red crater and emerald lakes, we retraced our steps back down the mountain and threw ourselves into the car to drive 220 km to Wanganui.

After putting up the tent at one of the many holiday parks we would stop at in New Zealand we found a place to eat called Breakers. Brad ordered a veggie burger and I ordered a chicken cajun burger.

I struck up another casual conversation, this time with the bar tender who did not love her job, was a little lazy, thus making her the kind of person I would like to buy shots with.
Brad and I took our burgers outside, sat in plastic patio furniture and homesickness began to stab me a little deeper. As Brad and I watched some lame boy try to hit on pretty girls it felt like the knife of homesickness was twisting around. Thousands of miles from Greensboro's own Breakers and the scene was all too familiar.

The next day we drove 190 km to Wellington.

To then take a ferry on to Picton in the south island

We then drove 104 km to the town of Nelson and found our campsite with the last few moments of daylight.

Research on the town of Nelson brought us to expect an artist community with interesting cafes and potential conversation. Nelson instead held bad fashion and included a scolding for lingering in the magazine store for too long.

The one homeless man we meet was clean shaved, smelled like every other summertime drunk, and was able to hold a coherent conversation.

The most excitement was when an overdose of The Everybody Fields brought me to tears which pulled Brad and me out of the tent to drink wine in an empty suburban soccer field, late at night. Again the homesickness knife plunged deeper, this time into my heart. I was reminded of Mt. Lebanon and crushes that brought me to spend nights in a soccer field as my safely familiar neighborhood slept.

That Wednesday morning we headed south for Franz Joseph Glacier, driving a little under 480 km. The scenery continued to grow more intensely green and the Ipod adapter proved to be well worth the investment.

The morning after we arrived I spread veggie mite on my bread while Brad continued to enjoy the butter like avocados.

Then we put on some silly boats,

loaded the bus with about 35 other people and hiked around a glacier.

Traveling would not truly be traveling if you did not meet weird loners that do not excel at human interaction. That such character, in the New Zealand chapter, was met on this glacier hike.

The following day we shook some raindrops off the tent, loaded the car up once again to drive about 530 km to Te Anau. This town proved to be more our speed and it was here that my pizza overload began.

After a night in Te Anau our last drive south began as we headed 120km down the road to the Milford Sound. I could have never begun to imagine what this part of New Zealand holds.

Once we arrived at the Milford Sound, Brad and I titled the following day- hitori day. A little play on words with the Japanese language.

It was our solo day. So we chose separate nearby trails and made our way.

My trail grew deep into the rain forest fairly quickly. I could not hold back my Alaskan Girl Scout instincts as I sang and clapped my hands, being that I was walking deeper in the brush with a pack full of food … alone.

I walked for over an hour until I decided that I would prefer to put my ipod on and walk up and down the paved road. I turned around to head about 5km up the road to wheelchair accessible trail that lead to a waterfall.

That evening Brad and I returned from the only bar (for miles and miles) unable to take our eyes off the sky. I know it is cliché to write about bright stars, but it was truly unbelievable.

The homesickness poured over me in waves as I stared at the Milky Way. I missed Molly because she would understand the importance in lighting a cigarette under those stars. I missed Hilary because if she had been there I would have been far drunker. I missed Rose because she is a pillar of stability and that is something I wanted so many miles from any place I could even remotely call home. I missed my dad because I know he would really appreciate this moment in nature. And I missed most other people I have ever thought twice about.

Taking down the tent at the Milford Sound Lodge was the only moment I felt sad about rolling that thing up.

The lodge held a kind of vibe that could only be captured in such extreme circumstances.

We started the drive north and picked-up some folks that were headed from Te Anau to Queenstown. They were Polish and appreciated my accent as I recited the little Czech I know.

When the getting to know you excitement ended we turned up the Ipod and watched the lush green vegetation disappear. Once the windshield washers were turned off Justina announced, “hey, look at the rainbow.” And that was the final sign in a series of signs that have been telling me I need to live in the Czech Republic again.

The next morning we woke up at the $40 campsite in Queenstown with a reminder of the drinking that happens in the Czech/ Poland region of the world. This feeling could also be described as a hangover.

We dropped the car off in Christchurch after having clocked in 3,013 km (1,872 miles) on the odometer.

The journey concluded with an almost missed flight from Christchurch to Auckland (courtesy of me) and the most foul dental hygiene I have even seen.

After two weeks in New Zealand an approaching autumn morning sent us back to Japan.

"Happiness only real when shared" - Into the Wild