Sunday, 31 January 2010

Lazy weekends...

Sometimes you need them. Today I took a mosey around my village - it's vast! - and found my way back to the lake out in the mountains I visited at the end of last summer. I was surprised to find hard snow around the stream leading down to the lake, and even more when I found the lake completely frozen over. Presumably the mountains and high trees prevent too much sunlight getting down there.

A view over my village to Iida

Moss-covered bridge

The frozen lake surface looked like the moon

Icy stream

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Snowboarding II

Last Sunday we headed to Nozawaonsen for the lengendary slopes of white. I came away with a profound feeling of accomplishment, and also a profoundly bruised set of ribs. Picture me flying down a really steep and difficult slope (ok, that was my fault), managing it onto a flat, then pitching forward face down into packed ice. Very painful. I'll stick to the intermediate slopes next time. Or was it intermediate I was on...?

Still, some good snaps of the wintery wonderland...

Friday, 22 January 2010

Mochi making

Last Sunday we headed south (again to Anan, that magical land where everything seems to happen) to make mochi! Mochi is quite simply a heavy, sticky rice, pounded into dough with a big wooden mallet. I feel this needs no more explaining. You then twist off a chunk of the dough and roll it in a topping of your choice - anko (adzuki beans), kinako (soybean flour), or goma (ground sesame and sugar). All were nice, but the goma was fantastic!

Beautiful Anan under snow

Poundin' that rice!

What's your weapon of choice?

Nozawa onsen fire festival

Less than 24 hours after the snow festival we were heading to the far north of Nagano to Nozawa onsen for the famous Dosojin Matsuri. Famous for it's world-class ski resorts and hot water onsens, every January Nozawa onsen hosts this crazy traditional festival.

Dangerous and somewhat violent, god alone knows how this festival is 'allowed', but nonetheless it happens. Only men from the village are allowed to take part, but it is watched but a massive, tightly-packed crowd of people from all over the place, including many foreigners and visitors to the country.

The festival consists of a giant wooden 'fort', build from lengths of wood and branches, as far as I could see. It stood about as high as a standard UK house, and perched on top are the 'elders' (42-year-olds) shouting "Bring the fire! Bring the fire!", as the 25-years-olds down below "defend" the fort from the "attackers", which consisted of waves of children from toddlers to 20-something-year-olds brandishing burning branches, staves, etc (I know! I know!). This "attack" lasts almost two hours, at which point the attackers have got close enough to set the fort properly alight. The elders on top scramble down a ladder, and the entire audience watches as the flames take hold and the fort eventually collapses. Then, two giant banners bearing the names of all the newborn children in the village are thrown into the flames (presumably for good luck, or at least I hope!) and everybody cheers loudly for the millionth time.

The spectacle is certainly something to see, everyone is in high spirits and enjoys themselves (some a little too much). We had a fantastic time, and to add to the festival the snow didn't snow pouring all night. We literally had to dig the car out of the snow when we left and push it up hills to get out of the village. A great evening.

The newborn banners on the left and right

Violent and young

Burn baby, burn (disco inferno?)

Anan snow festival

Last Thursday we packed into my car from a drive down to Anan for the midnight - 7am snow festival. Although there was no snow in the Iida area, the mountains of Anan were packed and covered with snow, which was a bit of a surprise seeing as we're down in the south of Nagano.

Just after midnight we rolled into the village time forgot. It was pitch black, as silent as a graveyard, somewhere in the region of -8 degrees C, and we were trudging through snow and ice following a satnav system on Bryce's trusty keitei. At one point I was certain no one would ever find our bodies, but we soon found ourselves at the bottom of a crudely-cut flight of stone steps, heading up a mountain and into the darkness through the trees. We followed them up and eventually came to a tiny temple complex, itself covered in snow. Bright fires burned in the corners where locals gathered around trying to beat the cold from their fingers.

My first impression was that it wasn't too unlike a Russian refugee camp... populated by Japanese farmers. The focus of the festivities was to drive a demon from the complex buildings, or that's what I gathered (as far as I'm aware it's a tradition, there wasn't actually a demon skulking around).

Finally a long and tiring drive home put me into bed at around 4am, I think, almost in time to get up at 6.30am for work. Argh.

Lantern in the village that time forgot

"Refugee-style" fires a-burnin'

The temple

Step 1: build pyre. Step 2: light it!

A statue of that demon I mentioned above

First snowboarding trip

Yikes, it's been too long since a blog! That's post-christmas laziness for you. Right ok, January then...

On the 9th Jan I arrived back at my village in the early evening after a half hour drive, three hour bus journey, two hour train journey and a twelve hour flight from the UK that was delayed by an hour. Less than an hour later I was heading out for a three hour car trip to a resort in Niigata for my first snowboarding trip.

The UK had been (and still is slightly) gripped with cold weather, the worst it's seen for a while, and as the country came to standstill after a foot or so of snow, me, my friend and his girlfriend found ourselves between 8ft walls of it driving through Niigata to Myokokogen.

We spent the best part of Sunday snowboarding, and although bruised from bouncing off of various extremities, found myself taking to it fairly quickly. Indeed, the rush you get from sliding down a mountain at uncontrollable speeds is quite spectacular. I managed only one "nasty" crash, which saw me bounce off of my forehead into a snowdrift. After laying on my back staring at the sky for a moment, I realised I'd become a potential target for speeding skiers, and hefted myself up and back down the slope.

A great first experience, and we're going again this weekend!

The view from our hotel/dorm

Trussed up and ready to rock... er, slide...

Monday, 11 January 2010

Christmas in the UK

Written 7th Jan.

As I sit at my UK home gently supping a cup of tea, I've afforded myself some time to reflect on what has been an excellent 5 months living in a place that initially seemed so alien, but is now my home away from home.

It's hard to believe it's been five months; it seems to have vanished so damn quick. In the past few months I've seen, tried and eaten (and lots of other verbs, too) so many new and different things, things I'd never expected I'd have the chance to. I live in a fantastic house on the edge of the Nagano Minami Alps, the rooftop of Japan, surrounded by beautiful scenery and nature. I like my job and love the new friends I've made. Being here has given me the opportunity to spread my wings a bit, see some more of the world and meet some new faces.

One of best things I've noticed is that being so far removed from my own culture has given me a different kind of confidence. I'm generally a confident person anyway, but on the other side of the planet I find the little every day things are often the hardest to overcome; going shopping, drawing money out of a cashpoint, finding clothes that fit well, trying to find out which platform to be on for which train. All these things become infinitely harder if you can't speak the native language. That's not to say I've spent every night rocking gently and sobbing myself to sleep - on the contrary, I try to meet all obstacles head-on and work them out myself - but I've found myself fastidiously planning even the simplest of tasks before I attempt them. That said, it's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to getting back to my little house in the mountains for the second stint of this year.

Of course I still miss home. Being back for the Christmas period has made me re-realise many things, such as how much I miss my family, how awesome my friends are, how beautiful the English countryside is, how great fish'n'chips are, and how much I miss being close to the sea.

When I headed to Japan last August I wasn't sure I would be coming home for Christmas, but I'm so very glad I did, for more reasons than I could have guessed. Not only did it give me the chance to stock up on all-round Britishness, but I got to travel a bit, see some interesting and beautiful places, and meet a couple of really amazing people. It's been a really great three weeks at home. Aaah the vapours...