Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The joy of mikan picking and large spiders

So, our family has enjoyed the wonders of Suo-Oshima on several occasions... some of which I have blogged about (click here for the search and scroll down to read the posts in order). We did something new today that can only be done during the fall... and that only one member of the family had done before: mikan picking.

Mikans are small Japanese citrus fruit, something between a tangerine and an orange. The whole family thinks they are delicious, so having a bunch of them around the house... doesn't remain and bunch of them for long. I thought it would be fun to pick mikans as a family.

Quick directions: Oshima is off of route 188, as you head west from Iwakuni toward Yanai. The bridge is about 45 minutes away from base. After you drive across the green Oshima bridge, turn right, on to Route 4. Not too far down the road, on the left, are flags like this:

Turn left there and wind your way up the hill. When you see this, you know you are on the right track:

When you come upon this building:

... park somewhere close. This is where you pay and get the necessary tools to pick mikans.

All-you-can eat mikan picking is 500 yen (about $5) for adults, 400 yen for school-age kids 1-6th grade, I can't remember the price for kindergarteners (sorry) and kids under 3 were free. If you want a bag to take home that carries about 12 mikans, it is 800 yen.

You get the clipper rental for free.

So, 8-year-old Xan had gone mikan picking on field trips the past couple of years, so he was the resident expert. He showed up how to clip the mikans properly.

And then we commenced clipping.

And eating...

They lost money on Xan, I think. He ate the most in our family: 5 large mikans. Will at 3 and I ate 4.
Except for Rodney, who chose not to eat all he could eat, and chose to fill our take-home bags instead... while the rest of us ran around, stuffing our faces with sweet, juicy goodness.

There were even plastic crates all over the orchard to toss our peels in to:

All was fun and games until the spouse saw a large spider in a large spider web in the trees.

Then it was time to grab our mikans and go home, I was informed. But the kids and I did manage to frolic and have fun while the arachnophobe marveled at how I managed to walk past spiders without shrieking like a...well, girl. Seriously... he asked me how I could just walk past a big spider. Um... like this, honey... just don't look it in the eyes or turn your back on it.. okay? But I digress...

Here are shots of the orchard and the view of the sea from the orchard.

Once we were safely away from large spiders who were minding their own business, Rodney got to finally enjoy a mikan. He agreed that they were oishii!

Hot, hot, hot, or not, not, not?: Firewalking in Miyajima

When I was invited by friends to go firewalking Nov. 3, my first thought was, "um, no, I avoid pain whenever I can. But, thanks for thinking of me!"

But then the adventurer in me smacked my first thought on the back of the head and said, "Bucket list item! You don't want to miss this!"

Fine, fine... Walking on fire... OK, let's do this!

Miyajima is considered one of the most beautiful places in Japan. It is, of course, famous of this torii gate that, when the tide is high, appears to be "floating." When the photo below was taken, it was low tide and it appears to be seaweed season. I don't reme,ber ever seeing the ground so green. Miyajima also has a a few Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, each one with its own annual events. Firewalking on Nov. 3 is one of them.

As we walked away from the torii gate and toward the shrines, there was a huge cloud of smoke in the not-to-distant distance. It looks like the fire was going to be pretty big.

Despite the huge plume of smoke, we were still a little early for the peak of the fire walking ritual, so we headed over to Momijidani Park, famous for its maple trees, which turn gorgeous colors in the fall. The leaves were just starting to turn. We gazed around for a few minutes, but then had to take off... we had fire walking to do!

We arrived at the temple a little after 2 p.m., which was the perfect time to catch the fire walking highlights. The Miyajima website explains the event, but, since everything dring the ceremony itself was in Japanese, I am not sure what the play-by-play was as far as what was being said, chanted or sung. There was a drummer and a horn blower, but that was the extent of the instrument accompaniment. So, here are some of the more interesting pictures I took of the ceremony. I wish I could explain what was going on, but I can't, so, I'll let these photos speak for themselves.

The guy "hopping" through the fire made me nervous... if he was having trouble with this, then I definitely was going to have issues. Big girl pants on! I will NOT back out.

So then it was time for the general public to take of their shoes, roll up their pants and give it a go. Anyone could do it for 1,000 yen. With that 1,000 yen (about $10) you got a red and white prayer stick. You'll see them being carried. People of all ages participated from the very old, being assisted by the very friendly clergy, and the very young, some of them not even old enough to walk yet. The devoted parents gently set their toddlers' feet in the ashes for a moment and then walked across the entire pit, carrying the youngsters.

After watching the faces of people like the ones below, I got more and more nervous, but everyone seemingly came out the other side without a problem. I didn't even see an ambulance waiting at the ready.

But, still... there are OPEN FLAMES and SMOKE. I tried to psych myself up for what I was about to do... The main thought that went through my head: Being a Southern California girl, I have walked across incredibly hot beach sand on numerous occasions. And my blanket was wayyyy farther away from the shore than the two ends of the pit were. I can do this! Seriously, I had to talk myself through this rationally. Although, is there anything rational about walking on fire? Yes: only if that's the one way to get out of an inferno. If that is not the case, this is fairly irrational behavior. Time to get my irrationalness (irrationality?) on!

But first, the clergy had to do another quick ritual... or maybe he was making sure the coals weren't too hot. I don't know. He walked over it a couple more times in between groups of people.

And then it was my turn. Yep... my turn. And just to warn you now... there is a spoiler... so stop reading if you don't want anything... spoiled. You will not miss anything important, other than the spoiler. If you plan to fire walk, I recommend not reading the spoiler.

I'm smiling in the photos above (thanks, Hyla!) because I'm kind of laughing at myself. The coals were luke warm at best. Not even like hot concrete, definitely no where near hot sand or asphalt. The roughest part was walking on wood chips... my feet tend to be sensitive. It was a bit disappointing after all the anxiety I had felt about possibly burning my feet, and I was laughing at how nervous I had been. But, I can officially say I have fire walked Japanese style. Bucket list item checked off.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Give six women 37 hours and watch them take Kyushu Island by storm...

Theresa, Hyla, Britt, Chie, Carolyn and me: The participants in the Kuju Girls' Road Trip
I am not sure if you have ever seen a horde of elementary school kids flood a playground after a few days of pouring rain. They have been cooped up inside, at their desks, in confined spaces and no matter how large the gym or cafeteria are, they just don't seem to take the edge off that boisterous activity that usually gets spent on the black top, among the jungle gyms, basketball courts and soccer fields. It's like rats trying to escape a sinking ship... the run out of the classroom doors like the devil himself is chasing them, screaming with glee and placing bets on who can make it to the swings first.

This is how myself and five fellow wives looked as we departed for a two-day mid-week girls' trip to the Japanese Island just to the west of us, Kyushu. Employers had been notified, daycare had been organized, the husbands briefed, and, because mine usually only listen to about half of what I say, he was briefed again. Our bags were packed, our yen gathered and we hopped in our rented 8-passenger van at 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, ready for whatever the next 37 hours had in store for us. And boy, did we manage to pack a lot in to those hours... and that van!

So, our main stop was Kuju Hana Kogen... a flower park about 5 and a half hours away famous for its cosmos flower field. However... the largest typhoon to hit Japan in decades blew through the Pacific, and while it was the tail end of the storm, and it had weakened, the cosmos field was "damaged." But, since we had panned this trip for weeks... we decided to keep our schedule and see what cosmos we could.

8:45 a.m.: We get on the Sanyo expressway headed southwest, to the next island over, Kyushu.
9:45 a.m.: Our first bathroom break... and opportunity to stock up on our favorite Japanese snacks. And just to note, no one can make a road side rest stop look more attractive than the Japanese:

11:10 a.m.: We get off of the expressway and start taking back roads to our mountain top destination. As we are cruising along, we stumble across a huge second-hand shop, complete with giant warehouse. While Chie, a Japanese national friend, has watched us get giddy over cast offs before, she still doesn't understand the thrill we get climbing through junk, fighting off spider webs and shouting with glee over treasures, but, she patiently waits for us to browse.

And of course I bought something! I got the three dishes below for 1,000 yen, or about $10.

It wasn't until I showed this photo to one of my English students that I discovered that they are probably matching sushi and sashimi plates, and an ikebana floral display stand. All I know is that they will decorate my house beautifully.

11:50 a.m.: We're back on the road and heading to the Kuju Winery for a late lunch.
2:20 p.m.: We are pulling in to the Kuju Winery, and throughly enjoying the the gorgeous mountain scenery. The winery also features a tasty Italian restaurant, complete with glasses and bottles of their local wines. I, of course, was driving, so I settled for iced tea. I brought margaritas for later. ;)

3:30 p.m.: We've gathered up our wine purchases and are now headed out to the Kuju Hana Kogen, or Kuju Flower farm.

4:45 p.m.: We're pulling in to to the flower park and have about an hour to galavant around before the park closes. I'm OK with this: We have managed to hit the park during golden hour, roughly the hour before sunset, when the afternoon light is just gorgeous. Of course we took full advantage of this amazing light and sunny weather. It was still 1,300 yen (about $13) to enter, but, well worth it.

5:45 p.m.: We are leaving the flower park... a little late. We had lost track of time, but no one had come to escort us out of the park. I felt terrible that we had kept some workers late, but their patience was very much appreciated.

6:00 p.m.: We arrive at our home for the night, The Kuju Kogen Cottage. For about $100 per person, we get two rooms, yakiniku supper, buffet breakfast and access to an onsen, or Japanese bath. Well worth it, in our opinions.

6:30 p.m.: We are checked in to our rooms, our supper reservation is scheduled for 7:45 p.m. and the margaritas have been poured. Girls' night has commenced! And it was a good thing, too, because the cottage provides resort wear for its visitors... which I considered to be a cross between summer camp wear and jumpsuits from prison.

7:45 p.m.: We arrive promptly at the dinning room for dinner, and were seated on wooden benches with grills and ventilation systems. Yakiniku means we cook our own dinner... but it was well worth it - incredibly tasty!

I thought the bibs were a nice touch with the resort wear.

9:10 p.m.: Being American, some of us were a bit hesitant to go to the onsen, since you have to be naked in public with other people of the same gender. However, after some margaritas and tequila shots, we were all a little more open minded and were so glad we were... we were able to bathe outdoors under the stars.

11:30 p.m.: We're relaxed, clean and some of us want to capture that beautiful clear sky full of stars. So, those of us who enjoy photography grabbed our cameras, tripods and headed out in to the cool night to snap some photos. Here is the moonrise outside of the cottage:

 And this is what happens when your tripod falls over during a long exposure. LOL...

1:10 a.m. Thursday: Those of us who were working on our night photography finally crash on our futons. Futon mattresses are not comfortable for 37-year-old American backs, so I shoved some seat mats under my mattress to soften it up. I set my alarm for 7:30 a.m., but some of the ladies got up before sunrise to watch the sunrise from the onsen.

7:30 a.m.: My alarm goes off and I get ready to head to the dining room for breakfast. I am not a morning person, and I tired very hard to not find the earlier sunrise risers annoying.

8:00 a.m.: We're in the dining room, filling up our trays with the breakfast buffet selections, like eggs, croissants, yogurt, tea, coffee... and salad, salmon and other not-so-traditional American breakfast items. But it was all very tasty and a great way to wake up a night owl like me.

8:45 a.m.: We are packed, paid and hitting the road to Beppu, a castal town where we will enjoy a sand bath... and some hells.

10:30 a.m.: We make it to Beppu and and the seaside sand bath facility run by the city. While we couldn't photograph it, the dressing room, complete with about 15 lockers, was about the size of a full American bathroom. In other words, tiny, for about 10 women at a time to change from street clothes to nothing but a robe. It took a bit of balance not to brush bare butts with someone, and I am not at all graceful.

But I am good at playing in sand, having been born and (mostly) raised in Southern California. And O thought he parasols were a thoughtful touch, even though I got a fully shady spot.

The warm sand baths are supposed to help with skin issues and circulation. I found it to be surprisingly comfortable, relaxing and soothing. We were buried alive for about 10-15 minutes before we showered the sand off and used our tiny purchased towels to dry off. Again, we got naked together, which has become something of a sisterhood for us now.

11:25 a.m.: We have added a few of the Hells of Beppu to our itinerary... there are 8 of them and we visited half of these natural hot springs:

11:55 a.m.: The Bloody Hell

12:15 p.m.: The Kitchen Hell, which is naturally at boiling temperatures and was used for centuries by locals for cooking.

12:35 p.m.: The Sea Hell, which was blue, but also hot enough to boil eggs.

12:45 p.m.: And the Mud Hell

We only spent 10-20 minutes in each Hell because of our schedule, so I definitely plan to visit these again with my kids... I think their curious minds would find them incredibly interesting.

1 p.m.: We are back on the road and heading toward our final scheduled stop: IKEA in Fukuoka.

3 p.m.: We make it to IKEA and while there aren't any photos to show for it, we did have plenty of purchases we brought home... but I am not showing photos here because no one needs to see the damage we did. Let's just say there wasn't much space left in the 8-passenger van. And we had our fill of Swedish meatballs.

5 p.m.: After a quick stop at Starbucks for shots of caffeine, we hit the expressway yet again for the ride home.

9:30 p.m.: I am back on base, alone, after dropping all of the ladies off, transferring my luggage and purchases to my home. I am exhausted, have no desire to drive for the next 24 hours or so, and can't wait to climb in to my soft bed. But I will be climbing in with a huge smile on my face and some wonderful memories with some lovely ladies. We managed to do so much in just a day and a half!