Monday, September 28, 2015

Trekking in Oze National Park

Every September, there are a few days of consecutive holidays in Japan.  The third Monday in September is 敬老の日 (keirou no hi, or Respect for the Aged Day), and September 23rd is usually 秋分の日 (shuubun no hi, or the Autumnal Equinox Day).  According to Japanese law, if there is a non-holiday in between two holidays, that day also becomes a holiday, hence September 22nd being 国民の休日(kokumin no kyujitsu, or Citizen’s Holiday).  These three consecutive holidays are commonly referred to as Silver Week, and it’s a popular time to go traveling. 

During Silver Week, my partner and I decided to go to Oze National Park, which is more than 370 km and reaches four different prefectures (Fukushima, Tochigi, Gunma and Niigata). 

We were able to find a tour package from Sunshine Tour which only cost 22,200 yen per person (included bus transportation to and from Oze, lodging at the park, and bento for two days).  The night bus left from Ikebukuro at 11:00 pm on September 20th, and we arrived at Ōshimizu Rest Area of Oze National Park at 5:00 am on the 21st.   After eating a light breakfast and changing our clothes (it was really cold!!), we began our trek at 5:45 am. 
The sky at 6 am
Trekking through the forest

We arrived at Ozenuma Pond after about three hours of trekking.  The water was so blue, and the fields surrounding the pond provided the perfect color contrast. 

Ozenuma Pond

View of Ozenuma Pond from the fields
Pathway through the fields
The sky reflected in the pond water

The trek on the first day was long, but we found ways to keep ourselves entertained.
The Mushroom Chronicles
Get those mushrooms, Mario
We finally arrived at 元湯山荘 (Motoyusansō), our lodging for the night, at 2:20 pm.  It took us more than eight hours to get there!  There are many lodgings like Motoyusansō in Oze National Park, which are called yamagoyas, or mountain huts.  They are very comfortable, and our particular yamagoya had private rooms (as opposed to shared rooms).  One thing to note if you plan on spending the night in Oze: there is a high chance that amenities will NOT be provided by the yamagoya, as the water that runs out of the yamagoya will be filtered back out into the park.  Motoyusansō asked that guests refrain from using shampoo and other bath products to protect the Oze environment.   
Dinner at the yamagoya
After eating dinner at the yamagoya, we went to bed early to prepare for our next day of trekking back to the meeting place.  On September 22nd, we left Motoyusansō at 7:20 am (which was so much nicer than having to start at 5:45 am haha). 
Morning glory

It took us about five hours to get to Hatomachitōge Rest Area, where our bus would come pick us up at 2 pm.  We ended up arriving early though, so we enjoyed relaxing with their famous hana-mame ice cream and a beer.
Hana-mame ice cream
Celebratory beer
For anyone who is interested in trekking, I cannot recommend Oze enough.  There are so many paths to take, and going throughout the year allows visitors to see different views of Oze depending on the season.  This particular tour package was also very convenient and reasonably priced.  

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Part 2: Rope Making and Rice Harvesting in Asahi, Chiba!

On Saturday September 5th, my friends and I went back to Ohara Yugaku Museum in Asahi to take part in the next experience: rope making and rice harvesting!

When we got there, we noticed that some volunteers had farming clothes prepared for participants who wanted to wear them (for free!) so we decided to wear them for the day.

After the welcome ceremony, we began the first event of the day: making rope from straw!
ALTs making rope from straw
The old ladies who were teaching everyone made it look so easy, but it turned out to be really difficult!  I had to restart my rope a couple times.  But in the end I (sort of) got the hang of it!
The rope that I made
We all wanted to keep our ropes, but unfortunately we used them for the rice harvesting activity in the afternoon.  The person in charge briefly taught us how to stand and cut the rice, and afterwards we made our way to the rice field that we had weeded two months before.
A child cutting the rice in the rice field

Cutting the rice was really fun!  We used the ropes that we had made that morning to bundle the rice.  It was really cool sharing the same experience with traditional Japanese rice farmers.  We cut the rice for about 45 minutes, and while there were a lot of other participants, there was still a lot of rice plants left uncut by the time we finished.  Now, there are machines that can easily cut the rice plants so it isn’t as strenuous for farmers to harvest the rice annually.  It was still an awesome experience to cut the rice by hand, so if anyone gets the opportunity to partake in this kind of event, please give it a try!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Tohoku Road Trip: Day 3- Goshiki-numa in Fukushima

On the last day of our road trip, we went to Goshiki-numa.  From our hotel it was about a five minute drive to the Urabandai Visitor Center, where we could park our car for free.  There was another parking lot closer to the entrance to Goshiki-numa, but we didn’t know about it until we started walking.
Goshiki-numa is made up of five-different colored volcanic lakes, and walking to all of them takes about an hour and a half on foot.  Apparently the colors of the lakes changes color throughout the year depending on the weather.  It was lightly raining when we went, so if we had gone on a sunny day I wonder if the colors would have been different.
It started raining more heavily after we finished our trek.  The owner of the Chalet Urabandai hotel kindly offered to pick us up and drive us to our car after we had finished our trek.  It was so kind of him to offer, since we had already checked out!

After we got back to the car, we drove to a nearby restaurant to get lunch.  The restaurant selection around Goshiki-numa is very scarce.  We went to the stylish Restaurant Monterey.  I got the mentaiko spaghetti and my friend ordered the sandwiches.  Both of our choices were so-so, so I would recommend getting something different (such as the hamburg steak) if you go.  
Ice cream flavors at Goshiki-numa
 No trip is complete without ice cream, so we both decided to get ice cream before we went back to Chiba.  We went back to the entrance to Goshiki-numa to get some ice cream!  They had some really interesting flavors!  My friend got the peach and Chocolate and Peach flavor, and I tried the Goshikinuma and Peach flavor.  They were both delicious.   It was the perfect way to end our Tohoku road trip and our summer.
Goshikinuma and Peach Flavor (YUM)

Tohoku Road Trip: Day 2- Yama-dera Temple and Fruit Picking in Yamagata

After eating breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and drove 20 minutes to Yama-dera Temple.  Yama-dera is a popular mountain temple in Yamagata Prefecture.  The temple is famous for its stunning views, but it is not an easy task to get to the top.  There are 1,015 steps to the top of the mountain temple, and while it seems like it will take a long time to reach the top, the scenery will give everyone energy to make the trek. 
A man praying at the base of Yama-dera
We paid the entrance fee of 300 yen and started our ascent.  It happened to be raining at the time that we went, but it didn’t deter us from making our way to the top.  The pitter-patter of the rain added a peaceful soundtrack to our trek up the mountain.
View from the top
Climbing to the top
The leaves have already started changing color
Yama-dera Temple
After making our way back down, we decided to get lunch at a nearby restaurant.  Yamagata Prefecture is famous for soba, so we both had the cold mountain vegetable soba.  We also saw that they had ice cream, so we got ice cream too!  I got the cherry ice cream, and my friend got the La France, or European Pear flavor.  Both of the flavors were really good!  My friend had only had one bite of hers when it dropped on the ground.  But the clerks were so nice that they gave her another one for free!
Soba Lunch
Cherry-flavored ice cream
La France ice cream, that my friend dropped

We walked around the streets of Yama-dera for a while and looked in some of the cute shops on the way.  We then made our way to a fruit-picking place to pick grapes and peaches!

It only cost us 800 yen for an hour of all-you-can-eat grapes and peaches.  It was heaven.
Niagra Grapes
Delaware Grapes
Goldfinger Grapes
Peach picking

Once we had our fill of delicious fruit, we made our way to Fukushima.  We took a mountain pass and even saw monkeys on the road!
Mountain monkey
We arrived at our lodging for the night, Chalet Urabandai.  The owners were very kind, but the lodging itself was sort of a letdown.  The room we stayed in was small, and the communal bath was not clean. 

We asked the owner where we could go get dinner, and we were surprised to learn that even though it was only 6:00 pm, almost all of the restaurants in the area were closed.  Like, really?!  He did suggest going to il Regalo, a nearby Italian restaurant (which was the only restaurant nearby that was open), which was delicious.  

Steak made from Fukushima beef

Artichoke Pizza
il Regalo Italian Restaurant