Monday, June 23, 2008

Plan Bs

Fukui is a rather soggy place. The autumn months found me wishing that I could somehow morph into an amphibian to better cope with what seemed like constant rainfall, and the winter found me digging my tiny car out of large-even-to-a-Chicago-gal snowdrifts that had literally accumulated overnight. So, the past few weeks of springtime sunshine and blue skies have been a welcome respite from the otherwise constantly-crappy weather in our random little corner of Japan.

Unfortunately, I’ve come to learn that this lovely weather was really just a tease.

This weekend, Fukui entered 梅雨(tsuyu), the rainy season, a Japan-wide phenomenon that runs from mid-June through July. Tsuyu translates to "plum rain" because it coincides with plum season (and ume-shu, plum wine, season -- yatta!!). But tsuyu should also translate to "dreary, sh*tty weather everyday."

When tsuyu hits an already-rainy place like Fukui (I guess my prefecture could be called the Seattle of Japan, minus the Space Needle), the results are, well, soggy. For example, 2004’s tsuyu once brought a legendary 11 inches of rain in six hours. Of course I realize that this will likely evoke little sympathy from my fellow Midwesterners who likely spent the weekend filling sandbags along the currently flood-ravaged Mississippi (keep fighting the good fight, y’all!), but that’s a heck of a lot of rain, by any standard.

So, what’s an outdoor-loving, sunshine-worshipping, soon-to-be-leaving-Japan-and-trying-to-pack-everything-in-one-last-time kinda gal to do during tsuyu?

Make lots of Plan Bs.

Which is exactly what I did this weekend after plans for a glorious two days of camping, cycling and otherwise worshipping the great outdoors were altered due to grey skies and lots o’ precipitation.

I’d been looking forward to one last round of camping and inebriated cliff diving at Fukui’s infamous Ono Watering Hole on Friday night. I was optimistic at first: I woke up on Friday morning to blue skies, chirping birds and butterflies, but as the day progressed, the storm clouds began rolling in. All I could do was laugh as tsuyu officially hit just as I was walking out the door at the end of the school day.

Plan B? We organized a little BBQ on a fellow JET’s front porch. The BBQ was more like a mini UN meeting, complete with a couple of Americans, two Japanese artists and a pair of just-passing-through backpackers from Spain. The trilingual conversation was lovely, as were the red wine and butter-soaked, charcoal-slow-cooked mushrooms and corn.

Saturday’s pre-rain plan was to cycle around the Five Lakes of Mikata, an aptly-named series of, uh, five lakes down in the funky “Dirty South” Reinan region of the prefecture. Some of the lakes are salt water, and some are fresh water, and they all differ in depth, so they’re supposed to be gorgeous, all different colors, in fair weather.

Plan B? We road-tripped down to the Reinan in my little car, stopping along the two-lane highway to take in views along the dramatic, rugged Sea of Japan coast. The grey skies actually made the greens of the moss-covered rocks -- and reds of the kitschy, rusted-out crab-shaped signs from long-abandoned seafood restaurants -- all the more vibrant.

We still made it to the lakes, and the rain even held off long enough for us to squeeze in a quick, 20-kilometer lakeside loop on some ancient mama chari bikes that we rented from the train station. We cycled through groves of plum trees, and along roads dotted with little stands staffed by hunched-over octogenarians hawking the corresponding fruit (it's pretty -- see the picture above). Rain soaked but happy, we later perused squid boats parked in the harbor in the little fishing port of Obama (yes, as in Barack), and had an amazing, multi-course dinner at an otherwise-empty seaside restaurant with no menu. All in all, an amazing weekend.

So, as the cliché goes, when life hand you lemons, make lemonade.

When life hands you plums, make ume-shu.

And when life hands you tsuyu, make a Plan B.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gomi Stress: Part 2

Remember that entry I wrote about Gomi Stress, way back in August? I was brand-spankin-new here in Japan, and was stressing -- like the other 127 million people in this tiny island country -- about how to properly dispose of my trash. How to sort my papers and glass and empty Diet Coke bottles and tuna cans. Which color bags are appropriate for which kind of recyclables. How to label my trash bags with my name, address and phone number. What kind of stuff I can actually throw away on "regular" trash days without my very observant, well-meaning neighbors returning it to me on my doorstep.

Stress, stress, stress.

Well, times have changed. I've gotten the whole "gomi" system down pat since August, but on Saturday, my friends and I suffered a different kind of Gomi Stress: namely, we weren't able to actually find any garbage.

I will preface this story with a blatant plug on behalf of some dear, dear Fukui friends who are organizing a two-month-long bike ride through Japan to raise awareness of environmental issues. It's called the BEE Ride (Bicycle for Everyone's Earth) and it's pretty darn awesome. Mad respect, A, C and C.

On Saturday, they organized a 60-kilometer "mini" pre-BEE Ride through the rice paddies, over the mountains, and to a little town called Mikuni, right on the Sea of Japan. Our mission: to pick up garbage on up usually-filthy beaches that dot the coast there.

As a hippie-dippie, environmentally-aware kinda gal who once caused holiday drama in her family by protesting the use of live trees for Christmas decorations, I felt compelled to participate. So, I joined the dozen or so riders that chugged along the two-hour route to Mikuni, armed with garbage bags and green dreams, only to arrive at the beach and find that there was...


Not even a stray cigarette butt. We cycled further up the coast, desperately seeking the garbage-filled stretches of sand we'd grown so accustomed to, but sadly, still found zero gomi.

Now isn't that ironic?

Turns out that the previous weekend, a group of like-minded folks -- Japanese employees from local businesses -- had volunteered their time and cleaned all of the beaches in the area. Apparently, the old habits learned from years and years of compulsory o-soji, or school cleaning -- time spent on hands and knees, scrubbing down the floors and bookshelves and toilets of Japanese elementary, junior high and high schools -- die hard. In fact, the employees were mirroring a thrice-yearly phenomenon called chiiki seiso (neighborhood clean-up), where hordes of school children, armed with brooms and dustpans and matching white cotton gloves, emerge from the schools to clean their communities. (On the last chiiki seiso day at Sakai JHS, our suit-and-tie-clad principal was outside with the kids, chopping away at some road-side plants with a weed whacker. Talk about hands-on.)

Can you imagine all of this going down in America? Me neither.

Only in Japan.

Our beach clean-up work already done for us, we found ourselves with some extra time on our hands, so my pal "A" and I snapped the bad-ass picture above.

Keep those green dreams alive, Miss A.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Road Less Traveled By

Today was made for a long bike ride: day off work, blue sky, puffy white clouds.

I set out with my iPod and a bottle of water, thinking that I'd do a quick 30-kilometer loop to the beach. But I quickly discovered that, while not so bad in a car, the route to the beach is, well, ugly. There's lots of concrete. Semi trucks whizz past at breakneck clips. And it smells bad.

After about 30 minutes of waiting in traffic and inhaling exhaust, I grew discouraged and headed back toward my apartment. This was not what I had in mind.

But, as luck would have it, I missed the turn that lead back to my apartment and found myself completely lost. I followed an unknown road, thinking it would lead me home, but instead, it led my further away, to the base of a mountain. Completely unknown territory. I pulled off to the side to consider my options: I still had the day off work. The sky was still blue. And there were still puffy white clouds in the sky.

I still needed to cycle.

So, with the kinda-clichéd-but-oh-so-true words of Robert Frost running through my head, I decided to take the road less traveled by. And it, of course, made all the difference.

The road wound through an adorable, straight-out-of-a-Japanese-countryside-calendar-picture kind of village with wooden houses separated by rice paddies and lines of laundry flapping in the wind. As the road continued, the houses became fewer and fewer, and eventually gave way to a forest of towering pine trees. I crossed under a covered bridge and then found myself cycling between a river and the base of the mountain. I turned off my iPod to listen to the sound of the running water and the wind in my ears.

No cars in sight. I was completely alone. Beautiful.

I continued to cycle along the river, under two more covered bridges, and then ended up in a second über-picturesque village. Lest the first be too cute, the second one-upped it with fields of wild daisies along the side of the road. Seriously. I cursed myself for not bringing my camera, but was pleased to discover that, this being Japan and all, my cell phone actually takes pretty darn good pictures (see above).

I followed the road to a T-junction, where it split into two intriguing options: right lead to a mysterious-sounding Senko-no-ie "Ancient House" and left would take me to a dam. Though I'd already been peddling for almost two hours, I decided that, having come this far, it'd be a shame not to try to see both places.

So I did. No poetry-for-the-ages-inducing choices necessary. Sorry, Mr. Frost.

The "Ancient House" was amazing, a centuries-old relic tucked away in a village where it already seemed that time stood still. All of the signage was in Japanese, so I have no idea when the house was built, but a subsequent Google search dates it back to the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). It's pretty darn old. The walls were made of thick adobe and the garden featured a still-working water wheel, the likes of which I'd never actually seen in person. Not too bad of a find, considering I completely stumbled across it. And there was nobody there -- not even a staff person -- so I was left alone with my thoughts and my cell phone camera.

The trip to the dam almost didn't happen. I left the house, cycled back through the T-junction and took the left fork, but promptly found myself at the base of a giant, ominous-looking hill (read: mountain). At this point, I'd been on the bike for nearly three hours and, frankly, was feeling lazy. But, being the stubborn gal that I am, I popped down to my lowest gear and chugged up to the top, where my efforts were quickly rewarded: the view was breathtaking. I cycled out across the dam. On one side was a deep-blue lake which was, well, dammed, and the other side was a spectacular pine ravine (see above).

Wow. Wow. WOW.

I was still completely alone, but that's what I said -- out loud.

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due:

"...yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

- Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Getting my Zen on...

I was up with the sun -- and the Zen Buddhist monks -- this morning.

My alarm went off at 5 a.m. and I was out the door 30 minutes later, zipping through rice paddies and along pine-lined mountain roads, taking in the sunrise from my little car. My destination was Eihei-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple and training center for new monks that's nestled in the mountains right outside of Fukui City. It's one of only two training centers in the world for the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism.

My apartment is only about 30 minutes from Eihei-ji, but I've never properly visited the place (just once, really quickly, on a rainy day with my host mom). It's kind of like how I lived in Chicago for five years, but never made my way up to the Signature Room in the John Hancock. Sometimes, when things are so close, you take them for granted.

But I couldn't let the chance to visit Eihei-ji pass me by.

I'd called the folks at Eihei-ji a couple of weeks ago to inquire about organizing an overnight stay at the temple -- the monks occasionally allow the secular-but-curious public to experience "A Day in the Life" of a Zen Buddhist monk. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons (most of them probably stemming from my poor Japanese phone skills), the temple couldn't accommodate my visit. I was beyond disappointed, knowing that, as my time in Japan is coming to a close, I'd likely never have the chance to visit Eihei-ji again.


But a kind monk named Kuroyanagi took pity on me and offered to personally guide me through the temple and accompany me to the monks' morning services. やった!!

The only trick was that I'd have to meet him at 6 a.m.

Now, those that know me best know that I'm not a morning person. I really don't function before I've had my caffeine fix in the morning. So, to get up at 5 a.m. took some sacrifice -- and some very un-Zen guzzling of Diet Coke during my drive to the temple. But the monks at the temple are up at 3 a.m. every morning, so I really had no room to complain.

My early morning start (and the extreme post-lunch sleepiness that I experienced at school later in the day) were well worth it. Kuroyanagi proved to be an excellent host, chatting with me in perfect English about the temple, the morning service that I'd be observing later in the day, and slightly more secular topics, such as his travels to Los Angeles and his affinity for Disneyland. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: we are all more alike than we are different.

We wound our way through the halls of the temple, where robe-clad monks bowed as they hurried past us. Kuroyanagi took me to a large prayer room, where I sat on a tatami mat on the sidelines, taking in the spectacle that was the morning service. Words really can't do it justice, but I'll attempt to illustrate the scene: 100 monks chanted in unison from kanji-filled prayer books as they circled the room in single-file lines. A deep drum kept the pace. Incense filled the room, which was lit only by candles and the early-morning sun. Perhaps it was my sleepy state, but I was mesmerized, almost hypnotized, by the sound and smell. The experience was dream-like -- even as I type this, I can't recall particulars -- and before I knew it, an hour had passed. A monk motioned for me to stand, pray, and burn incense as part of the close of the service.

Energized by the experience, I hustled off to school, where I taught some very enlightened morning classes. Unfortunately, I hit a brick wall after lunch and sleepily snuck out of school over lunch recess in search of more Diet Coke. Very un-Zen.

Perhaps I'll be better able to process my Eihei-ji experience after I've slept on it, but suffice to say I'm glad I had it. 'Twas ichi-go, ichi-e, as the saying goes.

Thanks, Kuroyanagi.