Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Winter Vacation Part II

After a long time waiting, I finally managed to meet the remainder of my family living here in Japan over the past winter vacation. Of course, this is more of my Grandmother's family than my own. In Kagoshima, which is the first place I went to visit, I stayed with my Great Aunt Shizuko's family. Sadly, she passed away a few years before I came to Japan, but her husband (Arima-san) and her children and grandchildren visited with me. I had so much fun there, and everyone was such a wonderful host towards me. Even though almost no one outside of my cousin was a fluent English-speaker, they all made an effort to talk with me in English. It was also nice to try out what little Japanese I know.

The first day in Kagoshima was more of a traveling day than a visiting day. My cousins were nice enough to pick me up in Fukuoka as they were driving from Osaka to Kagoshima. I could tell they were exhausted, but they somehow managed to keep active and talk to me the whole way to Kagoshima. We only stopped for Kumamoto ramen in Kumamoto, and then drove through probably a dozen mountain-tunnels. It surprised me how much the scenery reminded me of driving through Tennessee, but Tennessee doesn't have nearly as many tunnels to pass through (at least not near Nashville). After we finally arrived in Kagoshima, I was introduced to the family and looked around their driving school. The houses of Arima-san and  Kimitoshi are only a few feet away from the family's driving school. This was a little surprising for me, but I think it is typical in Japan. I met almost all of the family members that night, here are their photos respectively:

The second day in Kagoshima Yoichi-san took me to a museum to learn about the history of the area. It was a nice museum where they had a historical reenactment  of various Meiji era famous leaders done by robots (only in Japan). The most notable was Saigo Takamori, who supposedly played a big role in the establishment of the modern-day Japanese government system. The Arima family has a piece of caligraphy done by Saigo Takamori, and it's considered their family treasure.

 I was also driven around town to learn about the various historical places, and see the volcanic ash in the street. Mt. Sakurajima, which overlooks the city of Kagoshima, is an active volcano which blows ash into city up to seven times a day. It's a cool thing to see, but maybe a little unnerving to know there is an active volcano near your family's hometown.

That night was the big family event. All the Arima's gathered for the New Years, so I managed to meet most of my family. We had a huge feast at a traditional Japanese hotel where we ate nabe, sashimi, onigiri, and so many other things I didn't know the name of. It was such a nice dinner, and everyone spoke to me about how they remembered my grandmother, Midori. Everyone brought photos of her, and I know that my grandmother would have been so happy to be there with me. I got a photo with each of the families there.

The next day was probably the busiest. We left early to go drive to the top of a mountain range where there were various famous places to visit. These included Lake Ikeda (The Japanese equivalent of Loch Ness), a historical samurai village, fresh somen, hot springs, and Cape Nagasakibana.

Lake Ikeda was at one point a volcano, which died and then was filled with water to form a lake. The lake is famous for giant eels, and supposedly a giant lake monster. The eels were present that day, but sadly I didn't see any giant creatures that day. It's probably for the best, as the weather at that point was not the greatest.

For lunch we stopped at a string of restaurants famous for serving somen in a unique manner. There is a hexagon of fresh running water around your table (it makes more sense with the photo) and you drop the somen into the water and catch it on your chopsticks and it flushes by. I was really hesitant to try this as I had no idea whether the water was being recycled or not, but my cousins assured me, there was constant new water running in, so it was sanitary to eat that way. Lunch was delicious, and we moved to the next stop.

Cape Nagasakibana is the southernmost point in the Satsuma peninsula and is a really beautiful place to visit. This was probably my favorite stop on the trip. Not only could you oversee the ocean and the rocks below, but also see Mt. Kaimondake, also know as Satsuma's Mt. Fuji.

We also stopped at a special onsen (hot spring) which was famous for sand baths. The sand is geothermic-ly heated from the underground hot water seeping into the beaches. This was something I did not participate in, but I did manage to get some really nice pictures of rainbows. For some reason, there were a lot of rainbows that day. I even saw one on our last stop at a historical samurai village. This place was really a cool neighborhood, with homes that had been around for hundreds of years. Some of the homes you could visit, but others were private property and you couldn't enter. I forget the name of this place, but if I remember, I will post the name.

That night, we were really tired but it was New Years! Everyone gathered for a very tasty dinner of chirashi sushi and unagi (my favorite, that Miyuki-san was so kind to make). All that night until midnight, we watched the Japanese New Year's special on television. It was actually interesting to learn a little bit more about the celebrities popular here in Japan, but maybe I didn't know too much what was going on.

The last day in Kagoshima was a day just to relax, so nothing too interesting happened that day. I did, however, go visit my Great Aunt Shizuko's grave. I think it was important to thank her and her family for being such gracious hosts, and I know she and my grandmother are probably quite happy somewhere. Following tradition of New Years, I also went to visit a local shrine with Kimitoshi and his wife. We prayed, bought a few fortunes, and walked up and down a million stairs. Nitta Shrine was at a top of a mountain, so I was really surprised to see so many people making it up and down these stairs.This just goes to show you how the Japanese stay in shape. If going to church meant climbing that many stairs in the USA, I'm pretty sure quite a few more  people would sleep in on Sundays.

 Finally, it was time to say goodbye and head out to Kumamoto (in the next post). I had a lot of fun, but it was a little sad that my vacation was more than half over. I really wish I could say thank you to all my family members, over and over, but I don't know if that would ever be enough to balance out all the kind things they did for me.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Winter Vacation Part I

This will be a really long post since I have quite a lot to report, so it may take me a few days to get everything typed out and all the pictures posted. If need be, I may make a second post just to break it down, but for now let's see how much I can cram into this one.

First, the Yamahon challenge. That was possibly the most horrendously tasty event I ever went to. Whenever the Japanese say anything about Westerners being gluttonous,  it is a hypocritical remark. I have never seen an American person eat nearly as much as this, and as soon as photos are up you'll know what I mean. It's just somehow the Japanese manage to stay relatively thin despite eating an incredible amount of food. At the restaurant there were three tables of our lab people, each table representing a team lead by a senior member of the PHD program. Here I decided to break the photos down into levels:

Level 1:

Level 2:

Level 3:

Level 4:

Final Level:

So my table containing a total of 5 people managed to eat over 80 plates. Since I only ate 6, it was the other members who ate nearly 20 plates a piece. Of course, we were not the winning table either... Yamamoto (Yamahon)'s team won the challenge with over 100 plates among their members. I pretty sure a few of the lab members went home sick, but it was one of the most entertaining dinners I have ever had.

My Christmas Party was also a ton of fun! Me and my Korean buddies went over to Kayoung's house. I made a Swedish Tea Ring, Haejoo made the main dish of korean style ribs, and Kayoung made the Christmas cake. We also ordered some sushi and some other extra foods to enjoy. It was a lot of fun, and we talked, laughed, and cooked just as I usually do at my home on Christmas.

My lab, the week before winter vacation, also had an end of the year party. It was also the same day as the big lab-cleaning, so that morning every member of the lab was dusting, scrubbing, vacuuming, sorting, and sweeping every nook and cranny the laboratory and student rooms had. After that, everyone had worked up quite an appetite, so we all went to a Korean BBQ restaurant to eat together. Guiltily, I was late to this party since I missed the correct bus, but luckily I was only 5-10 minutes late, so I didn't miss anything other than drink orders. From what I could tell everyone had a good time, but I am pretty sure some of the lab members drank waaaaay too much ( you can tell by their facial expressions which ones). They were laying on the floor of the restaurant not too long before we had to go. Luckily that part of the place was empty, so they didn't bother people.

They also had Karaoke after this, but I respectively declined and went home after the dinner part. Somehow, I think Karaoke with a bunch of drunk laboratory researchers is not exactly my cup of tea. I wasn't feeling too great either, as I later found out I had caught a cold.

Finally, I had really great time over my winter vacation! I was worried at first because I had caught that cold during the week before I left, but luckily with the regular consumption of Zicam and chicken soup, I was feeling better before I left. The next post will be about me going to Kagoshima and Kumamoto to meet my family. Until then enjoy the photos above!