Friday, June 28, 2013


By all accounts, the homestays are going exceedingly well.  We're all ready dreading Tuesday morning when we have to pry the Trippers from their host families to make it to our Shinkansen to head to Narita.  The amount of overt emotions that were shared upon arrival at the train station made us tear up with overwhelming pride at how close our Trippers have become in such a short time.  Below are pictures of KJ and some of school life, but you will need to hear it from the Trippers directly to feel the impact of the homestay portion of their trip experience.  

KJ with its natural backdrop

The inside

The jump rope competition

The surrounding area


Having a blast.  See you Tuesday!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Walk Back In Time

Today, we took a three-hour bullet train trip and traveled back in time to a 17th century town.  Kakunodate is known as "Little Kyoto" and is an example of a castle town where samurai lived.  The streets are lined with weeping cherry blossom trees.  We went into samurai homes, museums, merchant shops, warehouses, etc.  We were treated to a lunch of Inaniwa Udon, an Akita specialty, by Obaachama Yokota.  Gochisousama!

Back at the onsen ryokan, we enjoyed a multi-course dinner with tin-foil fish smothered in cheese, chicken cutlet (for the non-vegetarians), nimono stewed vegetables,  tomato salad, and much more.  Of course, we enjoyed another ultra-hot onsen bath.  

Tomorrow, we head to Urasa to KJ School and meet our host families!  Excitement (and perhaps some trepidation) abounds. 

a little cultural lesson on Japanese graveyards


Trippers squeeze onto a bridge at the first "buke yashiki"

Some of the samurai homes

A thick door to a storehouse, or "kura"

An oddity at the door!
closer up

Some of the relics

and of course, another group photo


Nature everywhere, even growing on the top of a gate to the house

Monday, June 24, 2013

3000 treasures

We started with a 7:00am full Japanese-style breakfast of rice, miso soup, salmon, pickles, fried egg, yogurt drink, dried seaweed, and the ever popular "umeboshi," or pickled plum.  

That meal sent us off on our way for a one-hour mountain hike where various bear sighting have happened.

But never fear, they told us that we should just be noisy (not a problem, as the Trippers sang any number of often jungle-themed songs), and hit the occasional plank with a mallet to announce our presence to the bears.

We posed on a bridge with our best bear stances

Our walk also provided some unexpected wonders

We made it to our destination unscathed and arrived at what was to be perhaps our favorite temple complex of the many, many we have seen.  It holds, like others in Hiraizumi, UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and for a good reason as it contains somewhere in the ballpark of 3000 national treasures!  You're lucky to see two or three in many places, but 3000?  One such treasure was a building that is an ancient Noh theater stage.  The walkway on the left is the transition of the actors as they past from the spirit world to that of the human realm. 

There was also Konjiki-do, a gold-leaf covered temple built in the 9th century(!), that contains gorgeous pillars with glowing designs of mother of pearl inlay and exquisite carved statues.  That we had to keep as a visual memory as photography was not allowed.  The complex was so huge, and besides all the beautiful ancient shrines and temples, there were some other assorted images that made the journey special.

After that we ate lunch at a large shokudo and walked back to the station to catch a bus to to Japan's Grand Canyon, Geibi-kei.  We rode a boat powered by a young woman with a large pole for a 90-minute trek into the gorge.

There was abundant sun and on the return trip, our poleswoman sang a traditional folk song from the northern island of Hokkaido.  Please check out the YouTube link momentarily for a visual montage of the gorge with her powerful song as the sound track. 

Lastly, we returned to the onsen ryokan to bath and eat, and the Trippers diligently worked on their presentations for the KJ students as we draw nearer to the beginning of the homestay portion of the trip.  Only one more day of touring!

Oh, this is from a couple of days ago, but we had a bit of time to kill, so we demonstrated what can happen when you mess with Sensei (lol) - thanks Yokota-sensei for the expert photography.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Onsen ryokan

We moved to our third and final touring destination, Hiraizumi, today and got to ride our first shinkansen.  At Utsunomiya station the shinkansen sometimes don't stop so we got to see just how fast they speed by before we actually got on one.  We arrived by noon, took a leisurely 15 minute walk (somewhat uphill) to our lodging, which is a traditional inn with a hot spring bath, or an "onsen ryokan."  Once we settled into our traditional rooms with low tables, tatami mats, green tea service, and futons folded neatly, we ate our "eki-ben," or train station bento box lunches, and went out into the beautifully sunny (and actually quite warm) day to Motsu-ji.  The whole city has so many important cultural assets that it was recently name a UNESCO World Heritage site.  This temple has the only remaining garden from the Heian Period of Japanese history.  The garden has remained unchanged for over 800 years!  It is so different from most Japanese gardens in its expansiveness and look.  At first glance, it hard to understand its beauty, but with patience and contemplation, it was really a very inspiring place.  Most of the temples have been destroyed, but we were lucky enough to be here for their iris festival.  We spent over two hours at the temple reflecting on the past 6 days and journaled, sketched, or wrote poetry to capture and process some of what we've been through together so far.  After returning, we do what visitors to onsen ryokans do, which is relax in a soothingly hot bath, wear the provided yukata (cotton kimono), and eat a wide variety of traditional Japanese foods in a washitsu, or room with tatami mats.  With all the exercise and healthy food, we are certainly going to return home fit.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Our day in nature

Today was filled with some of the most glorious vistas Japan has to offer.  We set out for Oku Nikko, or far Nikko by bus where lakes, waterfalls, and long beautiful hikes up in the mountains treated our senses to the calls of cicada, nightingales and Japanese cuckoos.  We breathed in clean, refreshing mountain air as we hiked over 11 miles passing forests, rivers, marshes, mountains, and spectacular natural waterfalls.  Here are some highlights...

First we took a cable car to get views...

of Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls like this!

We then took another bus and a elevator down 100 meters to get views of Kegon Falls from up close

We then took another bus to Ryuzu falls

and began our long hike 

and then we soaked our weary feet in a hot spring bath before heading back to our hotel.