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As an American, it is assumed we have been to all 50 states, or at least the most important ones.  And to our Japanese friends, the most important ones are Hawaii, California, New York (City only) and D.C. Angela and I had never been to Hawaii, a fact that confused our host nation friends, as Hawaii is almost a Japanese province.  A perk of my job is travel, so when I had to go to a conference on Oahu, Angela decided to tag along.  Flying a flight full of Japanese people, and seeing signs in the Honolulu Airport all in Japanese, it took a while to feel like we had actually left Japan.  Our hotel for the weekend before Angela left was on the strip in Waikiki, with an awesome view of Diamond Head Crater and the Pacific.  We spent a great weekend relaxing in the sun, eating American food, and touring a beautiful island.

Our first day involved napping and catching a picturesque sunset over the Pacific from the beach.  We have missed our daily beach sunsets from San Diego and relished this one.  The highlight of the day was dinner, enjoying fresh seafood under tiki torches on the Waikiki beach.  We also discovered the Honolulu Cookie Company outlet stores, with free samples until 10pm.  Delicious!

Our second day we were adventuresome and climbed another volcano. This time, Diamond Head was much kinder to us than Mount Fuji.  A fairly simple hike from the beach gave us beautiful views of Honolulu and the windward side of the island.  Much of the view reminded us of Point Loma in San Diego, with sail boats on the horizon and a tiny lighthouse far below.  We hiked to a coffee house on the way back to use wifi (we were lost without our iPhones!) and set up dinner plans with Japanese friends who had joined thousands from the home islands to visit during Spring Break. We had a great dinner and enjoyed the American waiter working for a tip (in Japan waiters leave diners alone and NO tipping is the norm; there is usually a button on the table to push when you need something so having someone come by just to check on us was different).  We walked the beach on a moonlit Waikiki night and went to bed early.

Our final day together in Paradise was a busy one.  Waking up before 5am, we had booked an Island tour with stops at multiple locations. We were picked up at the hotel by a local guide and together with a small group of 6 we had a fantastic day.  Our first stop was the Pearl Harbor Memorial.  A new visitor center has recently opened and had good displays to look at and read while we waited for a ferry over to the Arizona Memorial.  Going through the memorial was somber and beautiful, and interesting from a viewpoint of living in Japan and getting to know the other side of the Pacific War.

Oil is still leaking slowly from the Arizona, and surviving crew members are still laid to rest there today.  After the memorial we drove north on the H3 (there are three interstates on the tiny island) and learned all sorts of facts on the way to the DOLE Plantation.  While driving by the middle lock of Pearl Harbor I saw my first command, the USS TARAWA sitting in moth ball state waiting to be recalled to serve or sold for scrap.

A brief stop at the DOLE Plantation allowed us to indulge in delicious pineapple ice-cream, and see acres of pineapples being grown.  Our next stop was the birthplace of surfing, the famous North Shore.  We stopped for a while and watched surfers try to catch waves on the famous Pipeline.  We stopped for lunch to eat some delicious farm raised shrimp.  After sugar plantations shut down, the state tried many indigenous industries for native Hawaiians to work on, and one was raising shrimp in flooded fields.  Part of the industry stuck, and we experienced the best shrimp we have had since visiting the Gulf States.

Another local favorite, the Macadamia Nut and Kona Coffee, were exhibited to us by the friend of our tour guide (whose grandfather had immigrated to Hawaii from Portugal to work in the sugar fields) at a roadside hut, and were delicious.  Driving around the island, we came to the windward side, which is less populated and more beautiful.  The water and beaches were breathtaking and mountains green and cliff like.  We passed a famous ranch where movies like Jurassic Park were filmed and part of LOST was set as well.  Before ending the tour back at Waikiki we drove up to a tall mountain pass and viewed Kaneohe Bay to view the spot King Kamehaha had pushed his enemies off a cliff to unite the islands (just before Europeans stopped by…).  A great tour that left us exhausted.

The next day we checked out, got Angela to the airport and I headed to a military base.  The short stay was what we needed to escape the last gasps of a Tokyo winter and enjoyed the warm weather.  Though it was nice to be in America again, the island feels very foreign, and we heard more Japanese spoken than anything else!

Heading back to work after time off is always hard, and leaves us anxiously checking the calendar for our next three day weekend.  The two weeks following New Years are tough to get through, but thankfully we reach a Federal Holiday commemorating Dr. King, providing a much needed break for all government employees come mid-January.  With both of us working long hours, we found ourselves desperately needing a weekend getaway.  The local travel agency on base offered a special to the west coast of Japan to visit the castle town of Kanazawa, famous for seafood, the gold leaf industry, and home to one of the top 3 most beautiful Japanese Gardens.

We put AJ in the kennel, picked up our train passes, and enjoyed a mix of Shinkansen and reserved local trains through the mountains west of Tokyo, and on to the Sea of Japan. We rode the train through the snow belt, enjoying fresh bento boxes and watching excited, tipsy snowboarders get off the train into a winter wonderland.  While our home near Tokyo does not get much snow, the surrounding country gets blanketed.  Much of Japan is truly a winter sports paradise, but we noticed stacks of wood logs and very steep roofs everywhere, indicative of how hard it really is to live there.

I had seen the Sea of Japan while on my emergency shelter/evacuation trip around the country after the March 11 earthquake, and had seen what looked like interesting villages.  Over the past year, I had been wanting to go back with Angela to visit, so we used this as an opportunity to visit the West Coast.  We got off at JR Kanazawa station and grabbed a taxi to our hotel in the inner city.  The west coast of Japan, far from Tokyo and Kyoto, sees less foreign tourists, but we were excited to visit the old, independent samurai town.  Kanazawa was the seat of a powerful Samurai clan, who maintained as much independence from the Shogun as possible, fearing his domain would be split and divided to diminish his power.  What we discovered for the next few days was a city built for defense, but that provided many luxuries for those the defenses protected.

We expected snow on the ground, but luckily it was just warm enough to melt the recent snow fall.  Kanazawa is famous for its rain and snowfall, and has developed ways to protect trees and bushes from the weight of heavy snow.  A majority of trees we saw were protected by a simple rope system which would break up the snow, saving the plant from damage.  In fact, this is what Kanazawa is famous for, and tour guides always include a picture or two of these tree pyramids. I assume they remove the contraptions in the summer, so it must be a painstaking process.  But in Japan, this really does not surprise us.

Our hotel was in the historic city center, and we headed off on foot to explore, coming across a unique shrine with a bell tower, reminiscent of western architecture.  The shrine, originally funded by the local daimyo, had relocated near the castle in the late 1800s after the Meiji restoration, and like much of Japan was suddenly curious for western ideas and thoughts.  In Kanazawa, that meant building a bell tower near their largest shrine based on European and American designs.  Stained glass was incorporated, giving the shrine an odd feeling of being in old Europe.

After visiting the shrine we walked along an old samurai neighborhood with traditional mansions and walls lining the streets. Restored mainly for tourists, we enjoyed the walk through old Japan, something more difficult where we live due to the massive modernization following the Pacific War’s destructive conclusion.  Though we looked for the famous local seafood, we stumbled upon spicy curry, which is always a good pick on a cold day.

The next day we enjoyed a good morning of sleeping in and enjoying matcha lattes from Starbucks before heading into the cold rain to explore the famed Kenrokuen Gardens.  Walking towards the garden, we came across a truly unique experience.  We noticed an old looking shrine near the garden on fire, so decided to check it out.  It turns out the shrine was hosting another New Year’s event, in which people burn whatever possessions from 2011 they wish (mainly house decorations and home shrines, including images of bunnies from the year of the rabbit).  Locals would drive up, get out of their car, walk to the fire and throw out 2011. And in Japan, 2011 deserves to be burned away.

It really started to rain and got cold when we walked into the garden. Good thing we had hot hand pads in our shoes and on our backs to warm up our kidneys!  The garden was a private domain for the samurai lord and his guests until the late 1800s, which is amazing as the garden was truly remarkable with everything you would imagine a Japanese garden would have.  The garden’s picture spot is a stone lantern overlooking a man-made koi pond.  This lantern is unique due to its longer than normal stand, and is prominent in every advertisement of the area.

Tired of getting wet, we took a break inside a restored tea house in the garden and enjoyed matcha and sweets on tatami mats listening to the rain in a remarkable experience.  The rain actually let up and we decided to explore the old castle grounds.  Walking up through the outer gate, we expected to pay an entrance fee when a local retiree took pity on the wet foreigners and gave us a private tour of the castle park.

Our new personal tour guide spoke good English and was overjoyed to show us the renovations being done to turn the park into a full blown tourist attraction.  He walked us through a fully rebuilt defensive gate and showed us all the different techniques of how unique this castle was compared to others (all Japanese towns say theirs is most unique), but we did learn a lot about castle construction.  After a great private tour we finally sat down to dinner. We chose a quiet place near the castle that treated us very well, serving mochi udon and tempura.

After dinner we explored a famous geisha district north of the city that remains intact.  We enjoyed the stone streets and wooden homes, but remembered from Kyoto that it is hard to see a Geisha at work without going into the expensive establishments.  We woke up the next day with one goal: to find and tour a famous Buddhist temple nearby labeled as the “Ninja-Dera.”

The Ninja temple has no actual connection to ancient ninja assassins, but was built by the local daimyo as further protection against a potential invading Shogun intent to fully subjugate the realm.  The paranoid local lord helped fund this Buddhist temple on the outskirts of town to delay and warn of an attacking force. The building defied many edicts from the Shogun, and included many trap doors and hidden pitfalls for unsuspecting invaders (why an invading samurai army would attack a Buddhist temple and not just go around it was beyond me).

The temple was beautiful, and we could follow the tour though it was given all in Japanese.  The creepiest part was a suicide room, with doors that could not be opened from the inside once closed.  If a samurai failed he could go in there and would commit seppuku, or starve to death, in any case dying for failing.

Our trip over, we headed to the train station early to enjoy sushi salads and grab train alcohol.  Japan’s infrastructure is built to get you anywhere without driving, so we enjoyed a few drinks while looking at dozens of snow covered peaks on one side of the train and the Sea of Japan on the other.  All in all a great weekend away to recharge.

This February we traveled to Sapporo to experience the 63rd Snow Festival.  We had always wanted to visit Hokkaido, and booked a tour that included door to door transportation.  Experiencing winter weather in short bursts, we purchased snow boots and other items to prepare for the arctic temperatures.  The tour flew us out of Haneda airport in downtown Toyko on a short domestic flight north to Hokkaido.  And being in Japan, our plane was painted with Pokemon characters, it seems to make sense now.  Domestic air travel within Japan is a much more calm experience than American airports.  We did not have to take our shoes off for security and could even bring liquids on the plane with us.

They seriously had a “liquid” scanner to check your bottle of water, tea, beer, or canned coffee for explosives.  We observed the device with wonder as an indicator light would flash green after scanning a half empty bottle of water. Genius!  We had thought that Hokkaido is sort of like Alaska, but it definitely gets more foot traffic with over 45 large daily flights between Tokyo and New-Chitose (Sapporo’s hub).  We landed and had some time at the airport before our tours began.  Before stepping foot outside of the airport we were immediately presented with every specialty item Hokkaido is known for to purchase, from dairy products, chocolates, and beer.  Japan really understands that money drives tourism.

New-Chitose airport is about an hours drive from Sapporo, and our tour stopped by Lake Shikotsu on the way for their annual Winter Ice Festival.  Along the drive we entered forest full of deer.  Large, hairy deer littered the snowy forest.  Hunting must not be as prevalent this time of year (if allowed at all, Japan has very strict gun laws).  Lake Shikotsu’s ice festival was an experience you cannot have in America for fear of being sued by angry patrons.  Every year locals build frames for structures out of wood and steel pipes, then use sprinklers spraying lake water to cover them.

The result is large structures with differing themes.  We walked through tunnels of ice with green pine boughs decorating the sides, climbed to the top of a circular ice luge with artwork hanging inside, and paid our respects at an ice Shinto Shrine.  But nothing compared to the ice slides and ice rink for kids.  The ice slides were entertaining in we would watch children happily slide down the luge, stop, try to stand up and promptly fall again.  This happened over and over.  Nothing compared, however, to the controlled chaos observed on the ice rink.

Kids would strap on helmets (which is rare in Japan, at least for bike riders) and wait patiently on the side of the rink (no ice skates) for their parents to fling them into the middle of the rink.  Inevitably the sliding, shrieking, children would slam into another child, knock them over, both try to stand, then slip and fall again on the ice, and keep laughing.  It was marvelous to watch and a wonder to us Americans who watched parents willingly fling their precious children into strangers’ kids.  There was no crying or arguing, just controlled chaotic fun. We chuckled over the number of law suits that would arise from such activity in the states.

Cold we climbed onto the bus and fell asleep, waking up to our tour leader telling us to “wake up now!” This was after he told us to fall asleep while he read us boring facts about Sapporo (his words).  We checked into our hotel in downtown Sapporo, then headed to our final tour destination of the day, prepaid meal at the Sapporo Brewery Beer Garden.  The dinner was an American’s and a glutton’s dream, all you can eat and drink for 90 minutes.  Except you had to cook your own food on a burner on the table, which turned out to be awesome.

We took up the challenge and grilled up endless fresh, local scallops, lamp strips (a Mongolian cut the locals named eating “Ghengis Khan”) and some veggies for good measure.  Endless alcohol also puts everyone in good spirits and we had a great time, enjoying fresh Sapporo Classic beer on tap at the source.  Leaving the dinner in high spirits Angela, Brian, and I left the tour group and took a train to Sapporo’s nightlife district around Susukino Crossing.  We sampled a few bars, ran into several foreigners, and got a glimpse at large ice sculptures lining the streets set to be unveiled the next morning.

The next morning we awoke to fresh snow and realized the Super Bowl was being broadcast on NHK live.  So we watched the Super Bowl with Japanese play by play announcers while we got ready for the day.  It was a new way to watch the NFL in that there were no commercial breaks.  The announcers would zoom in on the team’s benches and talk away while America watched the ridiculously expensive ads.  When a big play happened, the announcers (who were having the best week ever in Indianapolis) would yell, such as when Tom Brady was sacked on the Patriots last drive: “SAAACK-UUUU!!”

After a brunch of local seafood (AMAZING) we walked a few blocks to Odori Park in central Sapporo, the site for most of the snow festival. Sapporo as a city is unique in Japan in that it is easy for American’s to navigate.  It was designed by Americans in the late 1800s on a grid pattern similar to what we find in the midwest, meaning addresses mean something… unlike in Tokyo where some streets are completely unnamed and/or were purposefully designed to stop an attacking Ninja force.

Great in 1598, but not so much in 2012.  In any case, we soon found ourselves in a large international crowd, walking around the park counterclockwise.  The Sapporo Snow Festival was started in the 1950s by a group of high schoolers who were bored or cold and built some large snow sculptures as a competition of sorts.  Somehow the Japanese military got involved and soon an international festival was born.  2 million people now visit Sapporo every February for the event, and we were three of them.

Of all the things to see, we came across Hawaiian Hula girls first. Seriously, there was a climate controlled building full of sand with hula girls.  The Japanese are obsessed with Hawaii, and we are further convinced of this every day.  Soon we came upon the big attractions, starting with a scale replica of the Indian Taj Mahal.  Every year Sapporo will build an international icon in snow, and this year the Indians had their famous building immortalized in snow.

The structure and details were amazing.  Next up on the “wow” factor was a replica Japanese castle.  This year they built a replica of a castle from Fukushima prefecture to show solidarity from the ongoing disaster there.  This sculpture was by far our favorite.  The detail of the stones and upper levels were simply awesome.

Continuing our walk around the park we saw hundreds of smaller snow sculptures, with many anime and Nintendo themed characters around. Reaching one end of the park we came upon the international competition area, and had some fun observing teams at work.  Many countries send teams to take a block of snow and build a design to be judged at the end of the week, somewhat similar to sand castle contests.

Teams from India, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand, Hawaii, Taiwan, Oregon, and northern Europe wore team outfits and were hard at work.  Most used spray paint to mark where to cut the snow, but then whittled it down with small saws.  We wish we could have seen the final products, but some teams were clearly better than others (not sure why there were so many teams from countries that have absolutely NO SNOW).

Getting cold we started to purchase hot wine and sake and crab heads and warm crab legs.  As it began to get dark we came across the half of the park with lights on snow sculptures, upping the ante.  A crowd favorite was a gigantic Mickey Mouse and Magicians hat.  Behind that was an aquatic scene with fine detail on dolphins and a humpback whale.  Near the Sapporo TV Tower (every major Japanese city seems to have a gigantic metal tower with a mascot… why not?) we found a small park with ice sculptures based on designs children submitted.

One ice sculpture was lit up and set to music.  Looking around we found a little girl in a cage (a heated glass hut) playing the electric organ.  It seemed a little like child labor… but she was good!  Tired, cold and hungry we grabbed dinner along famed Ramen Alley in Susukino.  Sapporo is known as the creator of miso-ramen, and it was delicious, especially with large, fresh scallops.

Next we visited a string of ice bars.  Not every day you can literally have all your drinks on ice!  One hotel set up an elaborate ice bar outside their lobby, complete with ice stools and tables.  We ordered irish coffees and tequila sunrises, but they kept offering hot orange juice, which just seems gross to us, no matter how cold it is outside. A string of ice sculptures in the streets of Susukino were interrupted by magnificent ice sculptures.

While enjoying some hot wine at one ice bar, Angela got on the local news of a Russian affiliate as the reporter rattled on about the festival.  Some of the ice sculptures had fish and crabs frozen in them, and we realized that local restaurants had sponsored them and had advertisements with directions!  On our way back to the hotel we stopped by Odori Park to get some night pictures of the frozen Fukushima Castle lit up and ran into a delightful group from tourists from Hong Kong who had been snowboarding all week.

Our last day in Sapporo Angela and I woke up, checked out of the hotel, enjoyed a traditional Japanese breakfast, then headed out on an important mission.  We had to get a stamp in our Shrine book from Hokkaido, the second Japanese island we had visited.  We took a taxi to the Hokkaido Jingu Shrine, the largest shrine in all of Hokkaido, and discovered a beautiful garden covered in fresh snow.

A picturesque wet snow continued as we got our calligraphy stamp and walked through an old growth forest back to the city to catch a taxi back to our bus.  As a final tour event, we visited a ropeway, another singularly unique Japanese experience in that everywhere you go there is a ropeway of some kind.  The plan was to take a cable car to the top of Mt. Moiwa to see the entire city of Sapporo on the plain below you.  Except it was snowing, and became a blizzard/white out near the top of the mountain.

We spent an hour at the top, playing in several feet of snow but having no view but white.  After we got to the bottom to meet the bus again the sun came out, but our time in Sapporo was over.  The plane ride back was fast, and we were home in non-snowy Tokyo and back to work before we knew it.  All in all it was a great trip, and we would love to visit Hokkaido again!

It is no secret that I love wine.  I discovered the awesomeness of wine about five years ago, when James and I visited the Chatteau Morrisette winery in Southwest Virginia with a group of friends.  It was our first wine tour, and I was hooked.  At about the same time, I met a great friend whose family grew grapes and who now have their own winery.  (If you are ever in Southwest Virginia, Stanburn Winery is a must stop! Check them out!) She helped my love for wine grow into what it is today!  Soon after meeting Tab, I began taking wine trips with my girlfriends, and wine became a part of my life.  Since then, I have visited 40 or 50 wineries across the country, so we decided it was finally time to visit a winery in Japan.  I kept my expectations low because I didn’t want to be disappointed.  We set off for L’Orient Winery in Yamanashi prefecture, part of Japan’s wine country.

Japanese Vinyards a video by WanderingHokies on Flickr.

The vineyards spanned as far as the eye could see, but the fields looked very different than western grapes, as the vines grow into a kind of ceiling instead of in straight lines.  I was intrigued.  Some of the vines were grown above driveways and houses!  The Japanese definitely know how to use space efficiently, that’s for sure. It was amazing watching these tiny women on huge ladders tend the vines far above their heads.  It was a beautiful drive to say the least.

We were greeted at the winery by a very excited tour guide who had dedicated much of his life to Japanese wine.  To begin the tour, we walked over to a diagram of the wine making process.

Our guide began an in depth discussion on the wine process using a picture.  For a long time, I thought this was going to be our tour.  Ha! But, thankfully, it wasn’t, and we did actually get a brief tour of the facility.  Much of the tour discussed the wineries use of the Koshu grape, a distinctively Japanese grape.  It’s supposed to have a very fruity flavor and aroma, and pairs well with Japanese seafood.  I didn’t much like it, but maybe it’s an acquired taste.  After the tour, we went to my favorite part….the tasting room!

Unlike most wineries in America, we didn’t taste with wine glasses.  (Very much to my disappointment…) Instead, we tasted with small plastic cups.  And rather than tasting at a bar, you walked around and poured your own tastes.  While this helps with large crowds, you miss the great interaction with the workers at the winery as they explain the wines to you, and you also don’t really learn anything at all about the wines.  There were some interesting wines, including the Sakura wine (a Koshu wine) and the cherry wine (another Koshu wine).  I liked these two because they had actual cherry blossoms and cherries inside the wine bottle.  The taste was okay, but the uniqueness of the Japanese flavors encouraged us to purchase a few bottles.  There is no doubt that the Sakura wine is beautiful!  Though I’m not sure one should buy wine based on how pretty it looks inside the bottle.  It was a very unique experience, and while I didn’t like their wines, I am very happy we made the trip.

While on an MWR tour to visit a green tea plantation in fertile Shizuoka Prefecture, Angela and I got an impressive tour of a rebuilt Edo Period Castle.  We have visited several castles in Japan, but had perhaps our best visit at this more rural reconstruction. The tour we were on stopped for lunch in the village of Kakegawa, a city located on the ancient Tokaido Road that had connected Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo).  After a quick lunch in the tidy village, we toured the landmark dominating the landscape.  Kakegawa Castle is located on a hill, with the “donjon” overlooking the complex and can be seen for miles around.  Like most castles in Japan this is a reconstruction, as wood does not last long as a permanent building structure.  Walking up the steep stone steps to the donjon, we observed a miniature model of the castle complex, then headed up to the donjon.  The Castle Keep (Donjon) was apparently not for everyday living and only for defense, and thus is sparsely decorated.

Large rooms with few walls allow for defenders to respond to whichever side is imperiled by attackers.  We took our shoes off and took the obligatory tour up and down steep stair cases and vaguely following the poor English of our tour guide.  What was most impressive of this castle was the “daimyo’s” residence (translated as a palace).  The regional feudal lord, of the samurai class, would have lived in this really neat palace below the donjon.  Surrounding the palace was a Buddhist rock garden with carefully raked rows of pebbles.  Once inside, we took our shoes off and enjoyed the simple Japanese elegance of indoor design.

Sliding shoji doors separated large tatami floored rooms with few furniture items to be seen.  Indoor gardens were visible along inner secretive walk way, and I was most impressed with the gutter system carefully moving water into tiny indoor streams.  Oddly we discovered a room with the local kami (spirit gods?) costume for the local summer festival held every three years.  We enjoyed the town, only a two hour drive south, so much we intend to attend the festival in OCT 2012.

After a very crazy two months, James and I are both back in Japan.  It is difficult to put into words our experiences over the last few weeks, and I have struggled to write anything worthwhile.  I’m sure many of you are waiting for an Earthquake blog, and it will come in the near future.  Know that it has been extremely difficult to write and it will never say or be what I want it to say or be.  But, nonetheless, I feel like we should share a bit of our experiences with you, so be on the lookout for that post.  After the earthquake, James stayed in Japan and I returned to the United States for a few weeks.  It was great seeing friends and family, driving with ease, and shopping at all of my favorite stores, but I was definitely ready to come back to this beautiful country.

Over the past year, I have fallen in love with Japan, with its beauty, its people, its culture.  When I was in the states, a friend asked “what don’t you love about Japan?!”  Believe me, there are things that frustrate me and there are days when I want nothing but to be back in the states, but overall, I love Japan, and I love that we have such an awesome opportunity to live here!  I am very excited to be back and am looking forward to sharing this wonderful country with you through our blog.

It was -2 degrees outside (Celsius that is!  Negative two sounds much colder than twenty-eight) and we were driving between snow covered farms and little fishing towns that were seemingly deserted.  We were in Aomori prefecture, a completely different world than the crowded streets of Tokyo.  Here, the roads were wider, and the snow drifts rose three feet on either side.  Forests gave way to fields which gave way to more forests, until you reached the sea.  Small country shrines would appear now and then, almost hidden amongst the trees and the snow, and they seemed unkept and unvisited.  I liked the slower pace of life, the clean air, and the empty landscape.  It was a beautiful drive, a nice escape from city life.

We were driving through beautiful northern Japan, looking to find sea glass at shipwreck beach.  It was an enjoyable drive, and was perhaps the first enjoyable drive I have had since arriving in Japan.  In Tokyo, I am often gripping the steering wheel while trying not to hit things on the very narrow roads.  Here, the roads were wide, no cars were to be seen, and the roads opened up the world instead of trapping you. We had direcions to shipwreck beach, but the roads the directions led us to were unplowed, and since we had a small rental car, we decided not to risk getting stuck.  I wasn’t about to test out the Honda Fit in a few feet of snow in the middle of nowhere.  Eventually we found a parking lot near a wind farm that looked much more doable in terms of snow and ice.

The beach was a short walk, but we don’t think it was actually shipwreck beach.  I want to visit again during another season, as I have heard the shipwrecks are neat to see.  A bartender the night before told us the Japanese don’t like to visit shipwreck beach because it is eerie.  I am excited to go back and visit!  The car was nice and cozy, and from the car, it seemed like a great idea to go searching for sea glass in -2 degree weather.  Great idea indeed!  As we struggled across a field covered in snow, we began being pelted in the face with sea mist that was turning to ice. Having a hard time moving forward due to the strong wind, I momentarily rethought what a great idea we had had.  However, we continued on and when we finally made it to the water’s edge, the pain from the sea mist ice and wind was subdued as we discovered beautiful blues, whites, and greens scattered about.

It was breathtaking, and suddenly I was warm and my spirits were lifted.  Sea glass is formed by being tumbled, rounded, and shaped by the sea over many years.  It is beautiful and the pure joy that comes with finding a stunning piece in the sand is indescribable.  We walked up and down the beach until we couldn’t feel our hands or face.  We turned to walk back, and suddenly we heard a voice. There was a man standing right next to us!  I am still unsure how he creeped up on us so quietly.  I was startled, and kind of jumped when he started talking to us.  He asked us a question, so we showed him all of the sea glass we had collected.  This seemed to please him, as he smiled and laughed, and we had a brief conversation that included lots of smiling and laughing.  What we discussed James and I will never know, but it seemed to be a nice conversation.  Frozen, we began walking faster in anticipation of a warm car.  We scanned the landscape looking for where we had entered from the road, but it all looked the same.  I only panicked for a moment, as we were already freezing and not knowing where the car was could be potentially disastrous.  We consulted each other on where we each thought we had entered (which were surprisingly very different).  Thankfully, after only a few minutes of stumbling through icy puddles and frozen sea grass, we found the path leading to the road and our heated car.

When we visited the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, this is what the line looked like.  (Yes, for a museum!)

This is how the guys felt about it.  We waited anyways.  It was an interesting experience to say the least.

Experiencing our first real winter in several years has us wishing for some warmer temperatures.  That is until I was looking at some of our pictures from this past summer.  One of our most unique experiences thus far in Japan came in the middle of the most humid, sticky, hot, miserable summer I can remember.  Angela had seen or heard of a festival in a nearby town involving Lanterns.  We had barely been in the country and decided to check it out.  We were still living on base and were dripping with sweat well before we had reached the train station and were wondering if the trip was worth it.  After a relatively scenic ride west, we arrived at the town of Odawara in the foothills near Hakone Mountain (a traditional resort mountain offering stunning views of Mt. Fuji).  We enjoyed being out in a more spaced out town and followed the crowds to the reconstructed castle.  Odawara Castle has a long and distinguished history, involving rival Shogun sieges and being noteworthy as among the very last targets bombed by the United States in World War Two.  The Castle had been rebuilt following the great 1923 Kanto Earthquake and now houses rebuilt outbuildings, gardens, and a moat.  The lantern festival was held in the castle garden.  We learned the lanterns were special for being developed in Odawara centuries ago and look like fold up paper.  The local elementary schools have come to decorate hundreds of lanterns which are lit up at night along the castle moat making for great photos.  The most common theme amongst the lanterns were Disney characters, particularly Stitch (side note: the Japanese are obsessed with Hawaii).  While it was still stifling hot we paid to take a tour of the castle as the festivities were to begin near sundown.  With our admission ticket we also got to walk through a museum about the castle, but it was lost on us as our ability to read Japanese is non-existent.  After a hot walk up through a wooden castle filled with Samurai outfits, we reached the Castle Keep offering a vista of Sagami Bay, though the bay breezes still did not cool us down.  We descended into the festival and were met with a truly cultural experience.  The food vendors offered “seasage” dogs (likely some sort of fish), kimchi (which we tried and didn’t care for) but most abundantly, food on sticks.  Angela braved a squid on a stick, and found the taste quite good but too chewy.  We were hot and looked for shaved ice, but saw beer, and ordered a Sapporo on draft, receiving of course whiskey with a shot of beer. Of Course… The Japanese come to party!  The actual festival recounted events we, as the only gaijin in attendance, had no clue, but we enjoyed dances and theater in kimonos as we tried to stay cool.  After dark, a long parade formed and marched to different dance songs out of the castle into the town, and we enjoyed a nice stroll along an ancient moat lit by lanterns decorated with Disney characters.  We arrived back at home exhausted, sweaty, and hot, but realized that we were going to get the most out of living in Japan!

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