July 16-17, 2016: Weekend in Yamanakako

We spent the weekend on a retreat in Yamanakako, on Lake Yamanaka in the shadow of Mt. Fuji. It was a holiday weekend so the traffic was understandably horrendous. It made a long, hot and uncomfortable bus ride even longer, approximately 3 hours. I passed out cause it was so hot and I was pretty tired. I tried to take some pictures out the window but none of them came out very good. The angle was never right to capture the Japanese countryside. It actually kind of looks like upstate New York with all the trees.

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We arrived in Yamanakako in Yamanashi Prefecture about an hour later than scheduled. We had a variant on udon noodles called hoto. They are like flat udon noodles cooked in a hotpot. They are a specialty of Yamanashi. Yamanashi is also known as Japan’s wine producing region.  And they produce succulent peaches! We bombarded this little mom and pop convenient store all at once to buy peaches and alcohol. They were a little overwhelmed.

Next we headed to the Yamanakako Botanical Gardens. This was my opportunity to practice using the DSLR camera. I got some nice pictures. But here is the kind of funny thing. We accidentally  walked through the back, which was entirely unguarded and without a gate. It wasn’t obvious how to enter through the front gate, so we ended up going the long way around.  So we walked through some big empty fields with some interesting irrigation systems. But we made our way to the front and paid the entrance fee.  There was a cool waterfall and lots of colorful flowers. And then there a cavern formation where lava had run through.

But here was the highlight of my day: the onsen. I’ve been looking forward to the hot springs all week. After going several years without taking a bath, I took 3 baths in this one weekend. It is glorious. We went to the famous Benifujinoyu onsen. On a clear day, you could supposedly see Mt. Fuji. You take off your shoes before you enter the building and put them in a locker. I’m used to removing my shoes at home, but even in public places like this you take off your shoes. Anywho, the public baths in Japan are pretty common. There are sentou, which are a little less formal and smaller and are hot water baths–I believe for regular bathing. Then the onsen are more formal hot spring baths that are for relaxation, more like a spa. Both are fully nude, gender segregated facilities. It’s actually not that weird because everyone is naked. You get over it very quickly. You shower yourself off before entering the baths. You bathe seated on a stool which I think is supposed to allow you to reach your whole body. The pools are extremely comfortable. Alternating between the cold and hot pools feels amazing. In the cold pool I felt like a cool air in my throat. And you have to stay completely still. Moving makes it so much worse. It was a weird sensation. And I felt kind of dizzy getting out of the hot 42 degree celsius bath. I’m not really so into the sauna. The insanely hot water drips on you while you steam. And I felt myself breathing really heavily in the sauna. But anyways, that was just the first onsen.

We caught the last bus. The buses in Yamanakako are very provincial. They are tiny, cute little buses. You enter in the back door and scan you suica, then exit out the front and scan again and pay the difference if you have to. You get charged by the distance. We got off the bus really far from our dinner destination. We still had to walk really far. The buses come around once an hour and they stop running early. The last bus was before 6PM. Yasuko, bless her soul, drove us in droves. She was doing laps to the BBQ place and coming back to intercept us and pick us up 4 at a time. This is the manhole cover design in Yamanakako, which includes Mt. Fuji and swans (you can ride in swan boats on Lake Yamanaka):

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The BBQ was a lot of fun. We had a lot of food. Brian was at hte grill and some of the interns rotated in and out to help cook. We had beef, pork, yakisoba, octopus, and hot dogs and vegetables, etc. The equivalent of “cheers” in Japanese is “kanpai” and the toast was led by a stranger. He and his group of co-workers biked to Yamanakako from Tokyo, which is insane. He was very animated, probably a little drunk, and super energetic.

After dinner, we went to the beach around the lake and played with sparklers. It was super dark on the beach, even more so than on my street because there were absolutely no lights. That flashlight Brian gave me came in handy already.

We checked in to a Toshin facility for the night. I wasn’t sure what they meant by facility, but I found out that it is a training facility for work retreats. I slept in a tatami room on a futon that was more mattress-like than the blanket futon I have in my shared house. It was nice staying with everyone in the same place compared to my lonely shared house. It was like living in a dorm with all your friends. The facility also had a bath of its own. So this was bath number 2. After going to the first onsen, and then walking a whole bunch, I was all sweaty again so this bath was much needed.

The next morning, I skipped the ride in the swan boat to go hiking. Silly me, right? I had to wake up at 7 in the morning so we’d catch the bus to the start of the hiking trail so we’d finish the hike and catch our bus back to Tokyo. We didn’t catch the bus because we couldn’t figure out where the bus stop was. The stops on the schedule aren’t all on the map. Yasuko ended up driving us to the start of the hike. Actually, it wasn’t the start, but it was the start of the road that led to the start of the hike. I was already tired by the time we got to the start.

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The hike was hell. It starts with over 400 steps. They literally were never ending. You looked up and couldn’t see the top. And they are steep too. And I was hiking with a bunch of fit people with good stamina who often hike for fun. We collectively did not bring enough water. And my backpack was full of my weekend stuff because we had to catch the bus to Tokyo right after. I was all sweaty and my backpack also got all sweaty. I felt so gross for several hours. But actually, the hike, which was supposed to last for four hours, was only about 3 at the pace we went.  The stairs weren’t even the worst part. It only got worse. I don’t know how old people do this hike to the Ishiwari Shrine. The steep hike wasn’t much of a path. I was touched by so many plants that may or may not have been poisonous. I had to grab tree roots to pull myself up. And my sneakers are gross now. To be honest, the shrine was a little underwhelming considering how difficult the hike was. But we kept on moving upward to the top of the mountain. And that was the view that was worth it. Thank god it was a clear day. Because we could see Mt. Fuji. I would have been so mad if we couldn’t see Fuji after that hell of a hike. The view was worth it. The descent was arguably even worse. There is less to hold on to and you have to just shuffle your feet down the mountain. It’s really easy to slip and roll down the mountain. It is scary. But at the end of the day, this is prep to climb Mt. Fuji. It is a wake up call that I need to train for Fuji. Everyone has been telling me that it’s not that big of a deal, it’s just a long walk, but Fuji is not going to be easy. I hope it happens though.

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We got on the bus to Tokyo at the stop before the one we were supposed to get on. We were going to take this other public bus to get to our actual stop, but it never came. Luckily, we asked the bus driver if we could board early. He let us on for 50 yen. There was an awkward moment when one person had to wait for the 1PM bus instead of the 12:30PM. Somehow, we ended up without enough tickets for the bus, so one person had to get on the next one. And it was difficult figuring out who went. And why it happened. It seemed to be a perfect storm of misunderstandings. But we never truly figured it out.

Back in Tokyo, we went to a conveyor belt sushi place. The plates are color coded and then they count your plates at the end of the meal. I had a hard time telling the colors apart, so I think I spent more money than everyone else. Cause I wasn’t so conscious of what plates were more expensive. They sell a Sushi Police DVD too. I have no idea what it is, but it was on the conveyor belt.

Ella and I went to another bath in Harajuku as a cheap way to kill some time and relax and wash off the buckets of sweat. I feel like I’ve been sweating nonstop for days. This indoor onsen was a lot smaller and despite the crowd it didn’t feel busy. That was bath #3. It was much needed. Because I felt so gross again. The humidity is really killer. I ended up having to shower again when I got home because of crowded walking sweat but that’s besides the point. Harajuku is also home to a Beard Papa’s, my favorite cream puff in the world. It’s just as good in Tokyo. I don’t do the exotic flavors because the original vanilla is simply the best.

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Ella and I were killing time to go to a festival in Yutenji. We got out of the train and followed the crowd dressed up in yukata. The festival was really cool. There were lanterns strung up all around the temple and in the courtyard. There is a big pyramidal structure in the center with a taiko drummer at the top. It’s actually two who alternate. Then on the bottom tier was the dancers leading the ritual. There were concentric circles of dancers following along. The music was very repetitive. It sounded kind of Indian and they keep replaying the same song. It was kind of annoying after a while. But the dance was mesmerizing. It was simple but really cool when you see the whole formation. There were also food and crafts/toys vendors. But it was so crowded and hot. It wasn’t really enjoyable to walk through but I loved to watch the dancing.

20160717_194900 So in conclusion, I like to take baths now. Big change in my life.

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