Dec 15 – 16
At the end of my stay with Chika, she told me she wanted to take me to visit her family. They live in a small town called Hokuto in the Yamanashi Prefecture. The town wasn’t listed in my guidebook and Chika said that probably no one there has ever met an American before. That sounded fun. We took the train.
Some of the best scenery has been from the views out my train window (wild monkeys scampering along fences, countryside towns with large gardens and rice farms, big sculptures of dragons made out of car tires, concrete walls with colorful murals). The trains go so fast though, I can’t really photograph.
Her mom and dad took 2 separate cars to meet us at the train station. I met them very briefly, then they went back to the house while Chika and I took one of the cars and headed to the nearby mountains.
It was really great to see the real Japanese countryside. I love all the little houses with their gardens and their pointy, blue and green tiled roofs. Chika’s dad is a rice farmer, as are many of the people in the area. But because it was winter, all the rice paddies were brown…or covered with snow. I’d love to come back during harvest season and see it when everything is green and growing.
I was most impressed by the vegetable vending machine. You could buy entire cabbages, daikons, potatoes, apples, sacks of rice, or miso paste.
The first day I was there, we drove to Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park.
On the walk from the parking lot, there were many stores selling jewels and gemstones.
And we went for a small hike on one of the trails.
People put coins in the cracks of the rocks for good luck.
Did I mention it was really cold?
We took a ropeway to the top of a mountain.
And we hiked up to the tallest lookout point.
The Japanese Alps consist of three mountain ranges. We had a view of the Southern Alps.
Here’s a video of the view:
I told Chika that I was curious about love hotels, so on the drive back into the city she took me on a brief tour of one. It was interesting. The term “love hotel” is basically a big euphemism for “sex hotel,” although it isn’t really as sleazy as it sounds. True many people do go there with people other than their wives, but the point of the hotels is to provide couples with a private place to be alone (as most Japanese live with their families until they’re married). Love hotels are very secretive and you can pay by the hour. The parking area is tucked away behind a wall, so people can’t just casually drive by and see your car. Some even offer covers for your license plate. When you enter the lobby, instead of being greeting by a receptionist, you go to a computer screen where you can view all the rooms. Once you’ve chosen the one you want, you pay the machine and get your room key. To ensure your privacy, you don’t have to interact with a human the entire time. Chika was really giggly and uncomfortable when we linked arms and walked into the love hotel. She didn’t want anyone to see us and think we were lesbians. A car did drive by and the people inside pointed and laughed at us, but oh well. We just walked in, took a look, then walked right back out.
After our romantic date at the love hotel, we went to two different 100 yen shops. These places are really fun. Again, I couldn’t resist and bought some more socks.
In the evening, we went back to Chika’s family’s house, a cute little place in the countryside.
As a way to experience traditional Japan, many travelers in Japan spend a few nights in a ryokan (a Japanese style Inn). But I didn’t feel the need to stay in one, as I was lucky enough to be welcomed into a traditional Japanese house – with sliding wooden panels and tatami flooring.
We all sat in the living room around their Kotatsu. A Kotatsu is a short wooden table with a blanket draped over the frame and under the table top. A heat source radiates from underneath the table and there is a remote control to control the temperature. This way, when you all sit around the table, your legs are nice and toasty. Akemi’s house in Kyoto had one of these too, but I didn’t know what it was at the time. I just thought the blanket was there so the dog could sleep under the table. No wonder the dog liked to sleep under there. It’s really warm!
While we sat around the table, Chika’s family asked me lots of questions (with Chika as translator). Chika’s mom sat down first, so she asked me all the common questions (How long are you in Japan? Are you traveling alone? Aren’t you scared to be traveling alone? When will you leave Japan? How can you afford to travel for so long? Do you have a boyfriend?) After I answered all her questions, Chika’s dad came in and we went through the series of questions and answers again. Then her sister came home from work and we went through the routine one more time. None of her family members spoke English, so Chika had to stand by and translate every time one of us wanted to say something. I exhausted my Japanese vocabulary at the very beginning and I sprinkled all the Japanese words I knew throughout the night. Kawaii (cute) was probably mentioned at least 20 times. I’m glad I learned that word. Every time I said something in Japanese, Chika’s mom squealed with glee and said “yaaaay!”
When Japanese speakers ask a question, they don’t always use the proper intonation required at the end of an interrogatory sentence. So their questions sometimes sound more like statements. For example, Chika’s mom said, “You want to try on kimono now” and led me to the bedroom. She was smiling and nodding her head, so I just happily followed. Apparently there are several different types of kimonos and this one is the cotton yukata used in the summertime. Chika said the only time they wear that one is for a firework festival once a year and her mom told me I should keep it. The tying of the kimono seemed like quite an ordeal. Her mom helped me put it on. Here is a web site about kimono.
After I was dressed in my kimono, of course we had to take some family pictures.
Then they said “You want to wear the kimono to dinner.” Again, it didn’t quite sound like a question, so I just went with it. Well…I would have anyway. I like playing dress up!
It was funny though because no one else in the family was dressed up. So we ate dinner that way – me in my kimono, them in their normal clothes.
Chika’s family had been warned of my eating habits ahead of time. I figured they’d accommodate me with something I could eat, but I had no idea they were going to provide such a massive vegan feast! When guests come over, it’s common to have a Japanese hot pot. This usually consists of meat broth, vegetables, and various kinds of meat. But this time they made a veggie one and Chika’s mom said this was the first time they’ve ever had an all vegetarian hot pot. It was delicious – mushrooms, noodles, tofu, veggies, spices. It all cooks over the flame in the middle of the table and everyone uses their chopsticks to grab stuff out of the pot. Once everyone has eaten their fill, it is common to add udon noodles and then start again. Chika’s family was impressed with my chopstick skills, but I’m still not the best when it comes to noodles.
In addition to the hot pot, we had rice, miso soup, and a bunch of other side dishes. I really liked the mashed sweet potato, but my favorite was the pickled cabbage that Chika’s dad made. It was so delicious! I can’t remember exactly what he put on it, but he said you cut the cabbage into chunks, cover it with a large, flat stone, and let it sit for a week. I’m going to find out the recipe and try it at home.
While Chika’s dad watched TV, we watched a movie upstairs and then took turns taking a shower.
And I wandered around the house and looked at all the amazing dried flower pictures that Chika’s mom makes. Apparently she’s an expert at flower arrangements and she teaches classes. I hope someday I can come back to Japan and learn from her.
I was so tired and we went to sleep early. Since it was cold inside the house, we each had many layers of blankets, with a heated one underneath. It was very cozy and I feel asleep as soon as I laid down.
The next morning, the family set out a giant feast for breakfast.
They even bought some natto because they felt everyone visiting Japan must try it (especially if they’re vegetarian). Natto is fermented soybeans. It’s stringy and stinky and has a very harsh taste. I wasn’t a huge fan of the texture, but I didn’t mind the taste.
As we were leaving, Chika’s dad gave me some dried kaki (Japanese persimmon). It’s common in the countryside for people to hang the persimmons from strings over their balcony. When the dry, they get chewy and sweet. Yum.
That day Chika and I left with her sister, Tomomi and we set off to view Mt. Fuji. It turns out that the Yamanashi Prefecture is the perfect spot for viewing Mt. Fuji (apparently much better than Hakone, which my guidebook talked about in great length). Mt. Fuji is surrounded by 5 lakes and we went to 3 of them, driving around and viewing Mt Fuji from different angles. I’d like to go back to Japan in the summer and climb it, but it was really pretty to see it covered in snow.
After that, we went to Oshino Village, a pretty area with natural springs fed by the water of Mount Fuji.
At the gift shops, you could buy little Mount Fuji stuffed animals, keychains, and cell phone decorations.
And lots of different pickled things. I liked the pickled garlic the best.
After walking around the village, we went to a restaurant that served “hoto,” a local Yamanashi specialty. It’s basically a big stew with thick flour noodles, vegetables, and mushrooms. Instead of putting meat in mine, they used big chunks of pumpkin.
It was a good thing we saw Mt. Fuji earlier. Because when we came out of the restaurant, the view looked like this:
We ended our day at an onsen. This onsen had a steam room and many different hot water pools – some inside, some out. You could spend the entire day there if you wanted. And once you’re done, there’s a rest area where you lay down on tatami mats and take a nap or drink tea. I can’t remember how much we paid but I remember being surprised at how cheap it was. And we had a coupon, which made it even cheaper. At the entrance of the onsen, there’s a little tank with tiny fish in it. It’s meant for you to stick your feet in while the little fish eat the dried skin off your toes. Ew.
- Most new cars in Japan have a gps built in. This makes sense, as there are hardly any street signs.
- The little kids in Yamanashi make cute Christmas decorations. Santa clauses with pirate eye patches and angels with black eyes.
- After so much heated stuff (heated floors, heated toilet seats, kotatsu, hot to carpeto to), you get spoiled. And it’s always a shock when something is cold. Most convenience store bathrooms even have heated toilet seats. But every once in a while, you’ll sit on a toilet seat in a guesthouse and it’s freezing! You start to forget that cold toilet seats are very normal in most of the world.
- Japanese is written in a mixture of three language systems – hiragana, katakana, and kanji.
- Instead of putting ugly chain link fences or plastic sheets around a construction zone, Japan uses cute fencing with smiling animals and happy, bird filled trees.