Saturday, October 31, 2015

It's all about jams, desserts and cosmos...

Suo Oshima Island (or as most base inhabitants call it, Oshima) is only about 45 minutes away from base and has a number of activities, from a small, but very hands-on aquarium, camping (and cabining!), restaurants, fruit picking, beaches and more. See that tiny search box up there on the left of this page? Type in ‘Oshima’ and you’ll see all of the blog posts I’ve written about my adventures there.

Last week, I took a girls' trip (yes, I do a lot of these... it is cheaper and more fun than therapy) I actually went to three new places on Oshima, one of them you need to hurry and see because cosmos only bloom through October, and maybe the first part of November. A shout out to my friend, Carolyn, for providing the pin for this beautiful field of cosmos flowers, which is a little off the beaten path.

This sign says "Temporary Parking for Cosmos Field" and the name of the family who owns it or planted it, not sure which. Of course, I did not find this out until later, so, no we did not park here. We parked on the road.

After checking out the cosmos, we headed to Jam’s Garden, a cute local shop and café (directions). The Café is not open on Thursdays, so don’t bother trying to go that day. But, trust me, there are other places to grab a bite, one of which I’ll talk about in a minute.

Jam’s garden features handmade jams and jellies that are created on site. There are a couple dozen varieties and you can taste-test them before you buy, which I loved, because some of the Jams were more bitter than sweet and that would have been an unpleasant surprise for a sweet tooth like me!

After buying some jams for the family and to give as gifts,  we headed to lunch at CaféMisaki (directions), which has recently been renovated. They also currently have an ad in the Preview Magazine, so be sure to check that out. They are closed Monday, Tuesday and the 4th Wednesday of the month.

It also sports a gorgeous view, so if you have a small party and the weather is nice, I recommend sitting outside. The photo doesn’t do it justice, by the way.

The café’s lunch menu (yes, there is an English one) is mostly made of curry, which I am not a fan of, but I wasn’t there for lunch, anyway. I was there for dessert. 

Yes, I was there for dessert. I had been shown photos of the desserts they offer and that’s what sold me on the place. There is also an apple tart a la mode that is on the Japanese menu that I was not aware of until after the fact, so I pln to order that the next time I visit Cafe Misaki. So, since I was convinced to visit because of dessert photos, I’ll do you a solid and show you pictures, too, and conclude the blog post with those. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

My favorite girls' trip getaway...

Sometimes you just need to escape. You love your husband, your children, your life, but you just need a change of pace. A chance to relax, commune with nature, enjoy the quiet beauty of a garden... and the pure joy of being able to do that without any, "Honey, how many flowers do we need pictures of?" and "Mom! I'm hungry!" Oh, and don't forget drinking some local wine and soaking naked in a public bath and "shopping" at a used furniture store (which really means dodging spiders and climbing over steel sinks to get to a ceramic toilet, but I digress...), and best part of the whole damn thing... spending time with some of the amazing women I've found here in Iwakuni.

My partners in crime, from my left, above: Carolyn, Gwen, Chie, Ashleigh and Cortney.

Where is this glorious place? It's merely 4 or so hours from the city of Iwakuni by way of Sanyo, in the mountainous terrain of Kuju Kogen, on the island west of us, Kyushu. It's a perfect destination for an overnight trip with the girls, and it has fun for everyone: wine lovers, flower lovers, animal lovers, onsen lovers, shopaholics... you just can't lose. This is the second year a group of us has headed off in to the wild (I say this because we did have a tanooki come check us out while we did night photography, and we dodged some spiders here and there) and I highly recommend it to other groups of women. It's an easy drive, and a relatively inexpensive trip. If you click on the link to my past post here, you can find directions, web sites and more.

So, with our cottage reservation, which was 9,000 yen a person, we got a tatami mat and futon bed in a rustic (yet bug-free and clean) summer camp-type cabin. You also get yakiniku dinner, a buffet breakfast and access to the lovely indoor/outdoor onsen, where the crystal clear skies allowed us a gorgeous view of the stars (especially after I turned off the outdoor lights... but I waited until we were the only people in the small onsen to do that. Most Japanese onsen in the morning, from what I have been told, plus they aren't sure what to do with a bunch of naked foreigners, so it's easy to get the place to ourselves after awhile.) We also received discounts at the flower park and horseback riding facility.

By the time we got our rental vans ($85 a day, which includes toll passes) and got ourselves up the mountain to the Kuju area, it was time for lunch, so our first stop was at the Kuju Winery, where we enjoyed their tasty pizzas (seriously, there is not a bad one on the menu...) and local wine.

There is also a small shop to purchase the wine you've tried at the restaurant, and other gifts. I am not a huge wine drinker, I'm more of a margarita fan, so I worked on capturing some images of the local scenery. The weather was absolutely gorgeous. We lucked out.

Yes, those are horses in that last shot. I'd driven by the Kokopelli Western Riding stables that are located near the winery twice before, but never stopped to see what they offered. This time we stopped.

Basically, if you want a 5-minute ride around the corral, it's 1,000 yen (900 with the cottage discount). If you want a trail ride, either 30 or 60 minutes, that's more of an investment. The stables, the winery and the flower park all close by 5 p.m., so plan accordingly.

The U.S. and Canadian flag fly because that is where these American Quarter Horse breed horses at the stable are from.

If you are missing your dog back in the States, they have several labs and golden retrievers who love attention. 
Carolyn wanted to ride, so she did.

Chie had never been on a horse before, so, of course we made her ride. I think she liked it despite the fact it was a little "scary." Both ladies even managed to ride in skirts.

Next stop: Kuju Hanakoen... or the Kuju flower park. Each of these three locations, the winery, stables and park, are within a half kilometer of each other, so there's not a lot of driving to be done.

We closed the place down, staying past 5 p.m. by mistake. As a photographer, I was waiting patiently for the sun to be in just the perfect place, but at this time of year, three weeks makes a big difference as to where the sun is at 4:45 p.m. Keep that in mind if you want to get portraits of your friends amongst the flowers. Once we had our fill of flowers, ducks, and pictures, we headed off to check in to the cottage, which is about 3 kilometers down the road.

The smoke in the distance is from the active gas volcano, Mt. Aso, which I had the pleasure of visiting 2.5 years ago.

These fantastic views above are impossible to miss. You'll find them on the country road that leads you to the cottage. If you're really lucky you'll see some black cattle with some interesting nose-ring tags, too.

We checked in to the cottage, got our room keys, which are actual keys chained to wooden boards, and made our way to our rooms. Each room sleeps 4 people... just FYI for your planning purposes. I brought a thin air mattress/mat because I am a sensitive American. You may also want to bring your own pillow. Ashleigh had to bring her Snuggie. I have a great photo of her first thing in the morning, but I want her to still like me, so I won't post it publicly. Let's just say it's a leopard print Snuggie, and she just woke up. Kitty was not happy.

We each got camping wear and matching slippers.

When in Rome...
Dinner was delicious. You can order drinks and they will be charged to your room. No wallets necessary. 
After dinner we did go enjoy the onsen... no photos this year, though.... sorry. But, seriously, there is nothing more relaxing than warm water, cool night air and a beautiful sky full of stars. Being naked is just an added bonus. And nothing beats a little night photography, so we were out there at 11 p.m. photographing the night skies in the grass behind our cabin. And that is where the tanooki found us...

... until Gwen scared him off with her camera flash. Way to go, Gwen, way to go. ;p

I captured the other ladies capturing the night sky.

Once we realized that the moon wasn't going to rise until about 3 a.m., we went to bed after midnight. And woke up before 8 a.m. so we could enjoy a buffet breakfast before hitting the road to enjoy a day of shopping. While we stopped at IKEA in Fukuoka on the way home because we wanted Swedish meatballs and cheap home decor, our actual shopping destination was Orange Top, a used furniture store about 45 minutes from the Kuju cottage. And used furniture store is what they call themselves on Google Maps. We lovingly call it the Kuju junk store. And we filled the back of two vans with treasures from this place.

And that's just the outside. There's that whole yellow building full of stuff, too. Fortunately, we had a Japanese-speaker with us (Thank you Chie, for going... we know how much you LOVE junk stores) so I managed to find out that they have been in business for over 20 years, but moved to this location 7 years ago. It's amazing the sheer mass of different items that fill the place from floor to ceiling. Literally, there are things hanging from the ceiling. And the lady who runs the place climbs on about three layers of furniture to cut something down for you if you want it. She's got to be part acrobat.

I asked for business card and got this:

For those of you who can't read Japanese, here is a Google Map pin., compliments of Carolyn, who remembers to do things like that. I am just too distracted by all the cool stuff to do something sensible like drop a pin, I guess. And here are photos of my distracting treasures from this shopping trip:

So, to summarize the trip, we left at 8:30 a.m. on the first Wednesday in October, and were back home by 9 p.m. on Thursday. And it was a great way to relax, recharge and get away from the daily grind. Despite the fact that two of us were fighting off colds, I don't think anyone would have missed this trip. It was a much-needed girls trip.

Want to go off on a girls trip but getting some resistance from the spouse? The fathers only had to handle one night and one morning with the school-age children. A sane wife is worth burning two days of leave, if you have younger children who aren't in daycare. There are babysitters and neighbors all over this base. JDs serves dinner. And considering how many times the non-military spouse has managed weeks- and months-long deployments, I think a true military man should be able to manage a household for 37 hours. If you find that yours can't, feel free to have him contact me... I'll put him in touch with the spouse who can assist him with his household management skills, man-style. Mine's a pro and knows he'll have a better wife for it. At least until it's time for another girls' trip... which happens to be coming up in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned... :D