Thursday, August 29, 2013

Three Falls... three boys... and a camera...

In early June, I got the bug to go out and enjoy Mother Nature for a few hours. Those of you who know me well, you know that this is a rare occurrence. I enjoy Mother Nature for an hour or two at a time, unless I am sunbathing on a beach. Then, it can go all day if I have a good book, huge cup of iced tea with Sweet n Low (preferably from Sonic) and the lack of a husband who doesn't like sand or crowds (thank you Iraq deployments). If the husband is in tow, I'm usually ready to drop him back off at home in about 35 minutes.

Living in Japan, I have heard about some gorgeous hikes people can take if they are so inclined. I am rarely inclined to hike or camp, so I hear about these trips and I say all the things one is supposed to say, like "Wow! That sounds amazing!" and "What a great opportunity!" but I do not commit to actually participating in such activities. There is a valid reason. I have tried hiking, biking and camping (I was a Girl Scout and I went to college in Flagstaff, Ariz., home to thousands of tree huggers, er, forest-lovers) and I always end up having something terrible happen to me... like it being so dusty that I get sick and throw up in my tent, or need to go to the bathroom so bad I rush back to my cabin, fall in a stream and the water was so cold that I pee myself. Thank God I was already wet from the fall... no one knew... until now. Or the time when a stick somehow got stuck in my mountain bike tire spokes on a downhill path and I was launched over the handlebars and enjoyed a face full of gravel. Or the two times I have managed to flip an ATV... both times in water/mud. No, Mother Nature and I have agreed that as long as I only stay out in the (relative) wilderness for only an hour or two at a time, she will not subject me with anything too terrible.

So the family, plus 5-year-old Junior, our neighbor we were babysitting, headed out to Three Falls one Saturday in June, about 40 minutes away from MCAS Iwakuni, in to the mountains. These falls are actually called Futashika Umezu by the Japanese, but you know how Americans are... if we can't pronounce it then we just give it a new name we can pronounce. Like New York. Or New Jersey. Or New Hampshire.

There are, in fact, three water falls at Three Falls, so, at least the description is an accurate one.

Falls 1 and 2
The Japanese apparently aren't too worried about people falling in to the shallow water with river rocks, or lawsuits from injured parties, or anything like that. There are very few rails, and those that they do have are simply a metal pipe to grab on to (see in the above photo), that may or may not be rusted. To get to the very end of the falls area, you have to climb up a steep metal ladder and some of the steps are chewed up by rust. But there wasn't a lot of "hiking" per se. More like "uphill walking" in some areas, and the kids managed it all just fine.

Falls 3, with Falls 1 and 2 framed in the background

No crowds + no sand = happy hubby

Proof Will and Xan were there.

Proof Junior was there. And so was his ninja bandana.

Proof I enjoy finding wildlife in when in the wilderness. And that frogs do a pretty good job of blending in to their surroundings.

Proof I was there and with people who had no patience, so I couldn't take the time to get a great exposure, and I had to use my camera flash, so now we look like we were poorly "Photoshopped" in to the shot, which, I assure you, was not the case.

As you can see from the photos, the area is beautiful. We hung out for about an hour before walking back to the car, about a 20 minute effort. In all, I was in nature for less than two hours. None of the kids fell in to the water, I did not pee on myself and there wasn't any sand for the spouse to complain about. That rates the trip as a success in my book.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Oshima Island: Dead ends, scenic views and floating trash...

My friend, Marilyn was kind enough to play tour guide for me Monday, taking me across the "big green bridge" about 40 minutes south of Iwakuni to what is actually called Suo Oshima island. We were going to eat lunch and attempt to drive around the island to take in the views of the Seto Sea.

There is a big Hawaiian influence on this small island and the favorite place among Americans to eat there is a Hawaiian restaurant called Aloha Orange. We ate there for lunch... While all of the food was good. I highly recommend completing you meal with the macadamia nut pancakes for dessert. They were fabulous.

Of course, I forgot to take photos of all of my food, butt hat just means that if you're in the area, you'll have to check the place out for yourself... word of warning: They are closed on Wednesdays.

This is also the place where I finally had no choice but to use a Japanese-style toilet. I had just told my mother than morning that I had lived in Japan a year and had managed to avoid Japanese "squatty potties." But, I drank too much oolong tea and had to go. Long story short... I managed not to pee on myself, but I am not sure if the people before we were as fortunate. There was wet and dry urine all over the floor. I have no idea why anyone would think these holes in the ground are more sanitary or easier to use than western-style toilets, but my knees and my shoes disagree.

After gorging ourselves on chicken, pork and pancakes, we headed out on the road... without a map, without using GPS, to drive around the coast of the island. We stopped every so often to get some photos. There was one beach that was exceptionally scenic from the road:

But I was a little disappointed once we walked down to the beach itself. There was trash of all kinds, everywhere along the beach and in the water:

As you can see from the very corner of one of the pictures, there were people happily swimming in the water. Moms wading with their toddlers, dads fishing with their kids, grandmas splashing. The trash did not seem to bother them at all. All I could think of was that if I saw this stuff, what small stuff that I couldn't see as easily was out there? I left my shoes on. Being from Southern California, and having lived in Pensacola for four years, I guess I was surprised. The American beaches I have frequented are much better maintained than this one was, surprising because the Japanese seem to take very good care of their resources.

But after my initial shock, we moved further down the beach (not too far, the beach was not large by any stretch of the imagination) and managed to keep the trash out of our cameras' frames to get these shots:

After about 20 minutes, the heat and humidity has already done their worst to us, so we trekked back up the stairs to the road where we parked, so we could get back in to the car, which featured fully operational air conditioning. I, forgetting what country I was in, stepped off the top stair, on to the main island road, a few steps away from the path of a Japanese semi truck. I was looking for traffic coming from the left instead of the right, and not really thinking straight. Fortunately, this all happened in less than a second, so I was able to quickly turn and take that step to my left, just as the semi truck blasted hot wind on the side of my face as it passed harmlessly by. Although Japanese semi trucks are only two-thirds the size of American ones, I am sure I would have lost that battle handily. Luckily, I lived to laugh at my sheer stupidity.

We jumped back in to the car and headed off on our trek around the island. What we assumed was that there was a road that went all the way around the island along the coast. Um, no. As you can see from this map, the island that has Yashiro Island along the south of it, is Suo Oshima. The yellow road we were on, 437, ends. Quite abruptly.

And this is what it looks like when it dead ends:

The road ends in somebody's driveway. I bet that guy is really tired of random, lost Americans visiting his house. Either that, or he finds it hilarious. I did not see anyone peeking out of the curtains, snickering, so I can't be certain.

So, Marilyn and I turned around and headed back to the last little village we passed on our journey, about 10 minutes back. In that village, there was a sign that looked like this:

We had already gone the Amafuri way.... we knew that was wrong. So, we attempted to go the Yuu way. Yuu is the city on the mainland that the "big green bridge" connects to, so we figured it would get us home. The trick was that there were three roads that veered to the right where this sign was. And one of them was NOT a kilometer away. We already saw that. So, we went with the theory that we had to veer now and go 1 km to meet the 60. OK... no problem. Except Road 1 took us back toward Deadend #1, Road 2 took us to this bamboo forest in someone's front yard:

and Road 3 took us up a hill to more front yards. I guess we were not meant to drive in a loop around the island, rather a straight line, back and forth, which is what we ended up doing, with a brief stop at 7Eleven for the bathroom and peach sherbet balls in a bag.

While the day's agenda had its ups and downs, I was with good company, so when you have good company and you're both willing to roll with the "Japanese adventure" punches, such as deadending everywhere you go while you have to pee pretty badly, you have a great day. And I did have a great day. I am looking forward to deadend-ing and avoiding beach trash on the south side of the island next time. ;)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

My love/hate relationship with lotus continues...

Lotus and I just can't seem to get along. Known as renkon in Japan, lotus root grows all over Iwakuni and the area is famous for its variety of the crop. Those of you who follow this blog may remember my less-than-delightful cultural trip in February when I went lotus root digging. For those of you who missed this personal calamity of mine, here is the link to my blog post "I fought the renkon and the renkon won" so you can be entertained at my expense.

But Jessica/renkon saga continues. The spouse left for his vacation in Illinois today (he will return in two weeks with our two sons in tow, just in time for them to start school) and while I love my husband, I refused to drive an hour and a half to the Hiroshima airport so he could be there at 6:30 a.m. for his flight. I am not a morning person, and I definitely would not have been able to ingest enough iced tea before we headed off to be able to drive on the Japanese tollway system safely. So, I did the next best thing: I dropped him off at the mall on base so he could catch the base shuttle to the airport.

As I mentioned, I am not a morning person. I need at least 24 ounces of iced tea before anyone can talk to me. Not kidding. So, about a week ago, people started asking me if I had seen the lotus fields blooming yet. I was told that they bloom best just after sunrise, apparently. It was also implied that any photographer worth her salt would get out there and take some pictures. No one actually said this, but I could feel it in the air, swimming through the August humidity. So, in each of the three instances where lotus flowers were specifically brought to my attention, I tried to hide my wince and said, "No, I haven't checked them out yet, but I'd like to." Which is totally true. I really did want to shoot lotus flowers. They are gorgeous and native to Japan and are a "bucket list" item. However, early mornings are not my thing. I am a night owl by nature, so I'm usually awake about three hours after sunrise, or 9:30 a.m., whichever happens later.

But since I had to be a "good wife" and take my husband to the shuttle at 5 a.m., I figured I was already up, so to avoid this inconvenience later, I planned to grab my camera and head out to the lotus fields outside the back gate of the base once my spouse was on his way to Hiroshima. I was killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Fortunately, the weather cooperated. However, my allergies did not.

About two days ago, I started getting a runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezes, the works. This is nothing new for me, but whatever my nasal passages didn't appreciate was stronger than my Allegra. Bummer. I've stayed indoors for the most part, because my allergies seem to be better when I am surrounded by central air conditioning. But, a trip out to the lotus fields was on the agenda and I am not one to back down from an agenda.

Within 15 minutes of entering the lotus fields, I felt my eyes start to itch, my nose began to run and at minute 18 I was in a full sneeze attack. I couldn't see well, I kept having to turn away from my camera so I didn't sneeze all over it, and I had to run back to my car for Kleenex. The renkon was beating me once again. Renkon 2, Jessica 0. At that point I cut my losses, gave the lotus fields "the finger" and figured I did the best I could. There are a few shots I liked that weren't obscured by flying mucus. You can see more of my favorites on my photography blog. Enjoy them. I doubt I will be adding any more to the lotus collection anytime soon.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Barbecue, festivities and fireworks.... Japanese style

Rodney and I were lucky enough to be invited to a Japanese barbecue and fireworks-watching party in Hiroshima last weekend. It was a lot of fun and so very interesting! I couldn't help but compare it to American 4th of July barbecues and fireworks displays and I was surprised by how many similarities there were between the two.

First of all, it was hot and humid. The menu included grilled meat, beer and soda in coolers, iced tea, buffet-style tables with a plethora of food,


paper plates (with my name written on it in Japanese and English initial),

and it all happened in a two-car garage...

However, this was an unusually large home for Japan, owned by a Japanese English teacher and her husband.

Two-car garages are rare in Japan, and I am not sure how much of an American influence the barbecue had, but it still had enough differences to keep me interested and feeling like a foreigner! 

I brought store-bought gourmet cookies, 30 of them, which were gone in a flash. Other desserts included fresh bananas and grapefruit, and thick waffles, which could be covered in syrups or jams.

The view from the nautical-themed deck on the back of the house was gorgeous and we had a wonderful view of the fireworks, of which none of these pictures do justice to. Hiroshima has fireworks annually at this time and rumor had it that more than 10,000 were shot off. The display was scheduled to go from 8 to 9 p.m., and right at 8 p.m., the fireworks started... I have never been to an American display where the fireworks started "on the dot." And the display lasted just seven minutes shy of an hour.

Like I said before, we had a great time. Our hosts were friendly and generous and it was great to really enjoy contemporary Japanese culture. Special thanks to the Webers!

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Beware of the free beetle... and other such advice...

So, I last posted about our acquisition of some free rhino beetles. Beware of the free beetle. My two pets, Bonnie and Clyde, were upside-down and dead in their enclosure on Day 7 (Bonnie) and Day 10 (Clyde). Quite the bummer for me, as I am, yet again, petless. I do not like being without pet... but I seem to have trouble maintaining my pets in Japan, so I may have to remain petless. Well, actually, maybe it is just free, second-hand pets, but I am too gun-shy to find out for sure.

It appears that Bonnie and Clyde (pictured above) were at the end of their life-cycles, which may be why the store manager gave them to us unsuspecting Americans for free. So, to my fellow Americans, I say "beware of the free beetle." It rates up there with "don't judge a book by its cover," and "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," and, definitely, "sometimes you get what you pay for."

Another piece of advice I give to you is "never trust an unopened umbrella." I learned this the hard way, as well. The spouse and I headed to Miyajima yesterday because I had not yet had the chance to walk out to the (usually partially submerged) Otorii Gate, and we had the time to do so yesterday. Of course, August is a disgusting month for weather here. It is either raining or hot and humid... or all three. Yesterday, it was all three. As we walked off the ferry that took us to the island of Miyajima from mainland Japan, it began to sprinkle, which soon turned in to a 10-minute summer downpour. As one would guess from my Type A personality, I had recently found an umbrella in my kids' room that I was sure they had forgotten about and put it in my "adventure backpack" so that I would always have an umbrella with me.

When the summer downpour commenced, I reached in to my backpack for the umbrella and opened it up to not only keep myself dry, but also my camera, which was slung around my neck. Water and Canons do not mix well. The umbrella was meant to keep the two from mixing, but half of the umbrella was torn and the metal spindles were half worthless. I used what little umbrella I had available to me to try and cover my camera, but with the spindles being half worthless, every slight gust of wind would turn the umbrella inside out. Unfortunately, I do not have pictures of this to share because I was too busy juggling my camera, the umbrella  and my backpack while trying to keep the camera dry.

Needless to say, Rodney and I purchased new umbrellas. Fortunately, one of the things I had wanted to get while I was in Miyajima was an umbrella. There is this store that had all sorts of things for 1050 yen, and one of the items is an umbrella that, when it gets wet, sports cherry blossom designs on it. Not a very "Jessica"thing to want, but I had had my eye on them for the past year, so I thought I would invest in one. So, for 1050 yen each, Rodney and I each got an umbrella. Mine has cherry blossom designs show up on it when it is wet. Rodney's does not. But he did use it as a parasol because after the 10-minute downpour, it was 94 degrees and HUMID. He was able to make his own shade, protect himself from sunburn, and fit in with the bulk of elderly Japanese ladies on the island.

It was not raining at this time, so this was not an umbrella moment, but a parasol one.
Actually, this rain/sunshine process repeated itself twice more, so we were quite happy with our umbrella investments. For those of you who like photos of Japan, here are a few more of the Otorii Gate not submerged:

That's me in the green shirt.

Coins had been pressed in between the barnacles attached the gate's legs. I am not sure if this was for good luck, like a wishing well, or what. I found a 500-yen piece (about $5) in the sand and no one walked off with it during the 15 minutes I was there. Crazy!
So, please keep in mind: 1) Beware of the free beetle, and 2) Do not trust an unopened umbrella. These are key points to your success if you choose to live in Japan.