Friday, August 28, 2009

Hitting Uchinada Beach, nr Kanazawa

Mum and I decided to take a break from the sweaty touring and spend a day at Uchinada beach, an easy 15/20 min direct train ride from Kanazawa station. Think Laguna Beach hits the Sea of Japan coast but maybe not quite as pretty. For what it lacks in prettiness it makes up for in atmosphere thats for sure.

Japanese girls in itsy bitsy frilly bikinis with zero cellulite and no bums flirting with the boys sporting the groomed J-pop looking hairdos (big bufonts) hanging at the skate park (on the beach) or, if supercool, hanging off their jet skis.

There's a few bars/snack huts at Uchinada and when I say hut I do literally mean large wooden huts with corregated roofs, not great to look at but totally functional! During the summer, Kanazawa Apres shuts its city dwelling and opens a cool bar and restaurant. There's another one called Peace Bar and another whose name I forgot.

Terrible pic of me sat outside Apres on Uchinada beach, smoothie in hand

They all pump out R&B and pop tunes all day, one even with a hook up to the speakers attached to the lifeguard tower on the beach so leave the ipod at home! Mum adjusted surprisingly well...think she just wanted to lie down and do nothing.

Uchinada beach has some awesome hammocks and wide sunloungers (good for wide people like me!) which I think belong to Apres but since the bars are all lined up together I'm not 100%.

Anyway we spent the day lazying about on our loungers sweating it out, drinking the odd cocktail or two from Apres and sampling the very warm sea (although the Japanese girls were screaming "it's cold") Come to England my lovelies then I'll give you cold!

Dusk on Uchinada beach

Friday, August 21, 2009

Meeting the marines, Iwakuni

F-18 Fighter Jets at Iwakuni

How often in your life do you get chance to visit a US marine base?

Well having met Chrystal in Tokyo for our Interac training I was soooo excited when she invited me down to stay with her and her friend Leah in Iwakuni, 20 mins south of Hiroshima. Leah is a US marine and Chrystal works at the recreation centre “on base”.

The big wig at Iwakuni

Let me just put “the base” in perspective. When Leah said she hadn’t left base for 3 months I thought bloody eck, I’d be going mad by now. I didn’t know at this point that base is 4/5 miles long by so many miles wide. Yes huge. They have their own golf course, bowling alley, cinema, Taco Bell, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Bath & Home depot, massive shopping mall, supermarkets, a church, the lot. No wonder she hasn’t left base. They use US dollars, not yen. You’d actually forget you were ever in Japan living on base, which I’m not sure is a great thing…!? Even the bloody steaks are imported! Unbelievable.

Me and the girls geting our imported food fix at the Marine Mart, Iwakuni

Anyway, it was a really refreshing change, I felt as though I’d flown to the US for a weekend holiday. WOW, to eat an oversized steak and cajun prawns on an supersized BBQ and drink oversized margaritas and Bud watching the beautiful sunset . Who can complain?

Me with the supersize BBQ

Waiting for din dins

I must admit I did get a bit overexcited too just seeing marines everywhere. I might have even let out a proper girly squeal at one point. (I was in the car so saved embarrassment)

Officers walking about Iwakuni

There really is something about a man in uniform. I kept to looking only, no touching. Beefy men with crew cuts aren’t my type. However I did insist on a piccie with Leah’s subordinates (they were petrified of her & obeyed her order when she said her English friend wanted a pic) so voila.

Me with some of Leah's reportees

In the evening we set off for the Officers Club (OC) and I got talking to a colonel who flew those huge fighter jets (known as F18’s) All very exciting except for when I was trying to describe where Kanazawa was he drew a crappy map and asked me if it was north of KIYOTEEE. I was like Kiyoteee? Ahh....after a few seconds I realised he meant “Kyoto”. Oh dear and isn’t this from someone who flies jets over Japan and studies flight maps? I couldn’t help correcting him. He said “Ahh Kyoto, yes that’s right” and pegged it sharpish.

Other than us all being propositioned by some seedy Filipino hookers in a bar in Iwakuni, no other news to report from my US Marines weekend. Great fun.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Shirakawago: Gasso houses, Bear skin rugs (with claws) and Onsen.

Shirakawa-go villages are famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer", as the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer.

This style is supposed to be designed to reduce the large amounts of snow that fall in the region during the winter. There are several dozen of the farmhouses in the village we went to, Ogimachi. It was such a beautiful day and we instantly fell in love with the place. It had such a cosy atmosphere, water mills, beautiful flowers everywhere and that smell of hot alpine wood that made the whole place smell like a sauna. Heaven & so relaxing!

We took a walk around Ogimachi and a tour in one of the famous gassho houses. The roofs, made without nails, provided a large attic space used for cultivating silkworms. I was desperate for us to stay in one of the gassho-zukuri farmhouses as I read somewhere that they cook your dinner on an open fire (irori) whilst you all cosy up together in the huge lounge. It sounded fab but the tourist office told us they were all fully booked, no surprise really since it was the middle of summer.

At around 5 we decided to pop into the local onsen at a hotel in Ogimachi which was nice but nothing to rave about. It did have a nice view over the river (but you really had to strain to see between the bamboo fence)

You know you're in the mountains when you get a rug like this in your room!

We ended up spending the night at a ryokan (Japanese hotel) down the road opposite the petrol station about a 10 min walk out of Ogimachi, hahaha, typical. The owners didn’t speak any English so I did my best broken Japanese and we were taken to our room which sported the hugest bear skin rug I’d ever seen (in fact the only one) It even had the bloody claws still in it which I stepped on with my bare feet (excuse pun), eeeewww! Now to anyone who hasn't stayed in a ryokan (Japanese style hotel) you have to sleep on the floor (on a futon mattress that you pull out) so basically one of us had to partially sleep on the bear. Guess who did? Yep, mum, hahahaha.

Mum soaking in the culture (i.e getting her "softo" ice cream fix)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Kanazawa to Shirakawago via the Super Rindo Forest Road.

So despite having allocated a few days “rest” in our manic travelling schedule mum was keen on doing something so I got the map out and saw it wasn’t too far from Kanazawa to Shirakawa-go (a UNESCO heritage site so knew there had to be a reason) and we could take the Super Rindo Forest Road (which I heard was beautiful) on the way there. So split second decision and within the hour we were in the lilac autombile (which we had now christened FUK-U-MI having crossed a bridge in Noto with the name) clutching our coffee and pastry breakfasts.

Wonderful waterfall on the Super Rindo Forest road, check out it's name ; )

From Kanazawa it only took about a half hour heading south on the 157 Route towards Mount Hakusan until we were amongst the beautiful mountains. By the time we reached the toll gate for the Super Rindo Forest Road mum we’d already had a few hair raising “oh god we’re going to fall off the edge” moments in the car. The toll cost ¥2500 (summer special) as far as I remember but it was so worth it. The drive is absolutely breathtaking, totally unspoilt and we loved every minute. There were some beautiful waterfalls, cliff faces and stunning views from the top. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

PS Drivers beware. At one point on the road, these spacious comfy double lanes change into a single so when you meet another car coming the other way you’re only option is reversing which can rattle anyone’s nerves with a sheer 1,450 metre drop to the side of you!

The Super Rindo Forest Road is a “MUST DO” on anyone’s trip to Kanazawa and can easily done as a daytrip so don't hesitate. If you’re visiting in Autumn this would be the top of my list.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Adventures in the Noto Penninsula: Senmaida & The Miraculous Petrol Station

Senmaida rice paddies near Wajima

As we headed up the coast towards Senmaida from Wajima I realised we were running out of fuel. Using our trusty Japanese sat nav I located our nearest petrol station. (ok I didn’t understand the words but could see the petrol stations and onsen icons so quite handy!) Got there and it was shut, crap! Mum was starting to get wound up as the petrol light had come on. Went to the next station and it was also shut. Ah it was Sunday. Note to self: don’t run out of petrol in rural Japan on a Sunday...

We decided to head back to the B&B, feeling defeated and quietly sulking. After 5 miles nothing, another 5 miles nothing. Now we're starting to panic that we might not actually make it back. eeeek.....but never fear....

The mighty lord shined upon us and giveth an OPEN petrol station another mile down the road (it had to be him, or some miraculous intervention as it wasn’t on the sat nav) So the lovely lady filled up our tank, even practiced some English with us and we were back on our Noto tour. Next stop Senmaida Rice Fields, having done a 20 mile detour...

"Senmaida" literally means "a thousand rice paddies". Apparently in the past, tiered rice paddies like this were a common site all along the Sea of Japan coast. This is one of the most famous existing seaside rice paddies in Japan and it didn’t disappoint. Small terraced rice paddies on the dramatically steep hillsides tiered down to the sea.

Although it was raining we still took the extremely steep (and fairly dangerous when wet) path down to the sea. NB Don’t take the path parallel to the sea because it leads to nowhere! We loved Senmaida and as usual stopped for a “softo” (aka Mr Whippy ice cream) and enjoyed the view from the top.

See my other post about the wedding that took place at Senmaida as well as me helping out the locals with their rice harvest. Amazing!

Adventures in the Noto Penninsula: Wajima market & the best coffee in Noto

Huge spider crabs for sale at Wajima morning market

Another Wajima fish stall

When we arrived it was raining again so with our umbrellas in tow we strolled through the market watching the women (yes ONLY women) selling their local produce, everything from fish, veggies to the famous laquerware goods. There was a really good buzz there but me and mum were desperate for a coffee. Green tea just doesn’t start the day off like a caffeine induced coffee.

So we walked all over Wajima and just as we were surrendering to a vending machine canned coffee we stumbled upon a really trendy cafĂ© right next to the port. CALLED?! I can't remember, that's what. (Another sidenote, Japanese don’t really do coffee shops unless you’re in the big cities so take a supply if you’re a coffee addict.)

As we drank our cappuccinos in super trendy mugs & dried off mum was asking me whether I thought they’d have biscuits. I was like “Mum, this isn’t England, we’re in a very rare coffee shop in the remotest part of mainland Japan (although it honestly doesn’t feel that remote) Why on earth do you think they’d serve cakes and biscuits, be lucky we found coffee, ?! but she gave me that look so I said “Sumimasen, keki ga arimasu ka?” (do you have any cake, didn’t know the word of biscuit) and I swear to god she bought out the hugest cake. It was like Christmas had come early!!

After 2 huge cappuccino’s and a massive slab of cake we were full, wired and ready to go. Since it was still peeing it down, we decided to go to the local onsen just outside of Wajima called Buta No Something. Yoko from Flatts by the sea had recommended to us. She was right, it really made our skin feel like silk and it was blissful sat in the rotemburo (outside hot tub) which overlooked a cute little carp pond. I was mesmerised by the carp. I think I’d like to have them one day. Really calming to watch and be around.

If only we had onsens in England to chill out on a rainy day!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Adventures in the Noto Penninsula. Chirihama Beach Drive

So apparently the rainy season has lasted a lot longer than it usually does so we had monsoon type rain throughout our 3 day weekend in the Noto Penninsula! Bloody typical, it’s got to be because I’m English.

FUK-U-MI (named after a bridge in Noto)- our little lilac delight

Didn’t put a dampner on our sprits too much though. We hit the road on Friday in our tiny but rather fetching lilac rental car which I think had a half litre engine or was battery run it struggled that much!

First stop, Chirihama Beach Drive, a 5 mile stretch of hard packed sand that you can drive along (and that includes tour buses. I’ll get to that later). The rain was getting worse.

Seeking refuge and hot tins of coffee in the tin shack, Chirihama beach

We pulled into a tin shack (literally) of a snack bar at the start of the driveway for a quick coffee. Now that was an experience, coffee in a tin was put in front of us. I explained we were after a “hotto coffee” so she bought back two SCOLDING HOT tins of coffee, unbelievable. I hope she didn’t whack it in the microwave.

The tin shack was fab though, right on the beach, old rugs scattered on the floor and knee high Japanese tables with families tucking into udon lunches watching their kids playing in the sea (in the rain). How can I describe it? Rugged cool.. ?

The rugged cool beach shack (corrugated roof and all), Chirihama beach

Back in the car. By this point the rain was getting heavier, so we decided to do a U turn & get back on the Noto Toll Road for fear of actually sinking us and our little lilac delight in the wet sand. When got to the junction though it was like a lake & only big beefy cars were getting through. After a heated discussion with mumma I decided sinking in sand with the tide coming in would make a far better story than breaking down on a highway so we decided to head back for Chirihama beach. To be honest, we shouldn’t have feared.

Fear not. You know you're safe driving on sand when a Japanese tourist bus coming the other way

Despite the peeing rain the beach drive was safe as houses, even a bus full of Japanese tourists came past which eased the fears. In true Japanese style it even had lay bys, 2 proper lanes, cafes and of course loos every 5 minutes along the way.

Adventures in the Noto Penninsula: Flatts by the Sea, near Suzu

Mum outside Flatts by the Sea bakery (next door to the B&B)

View from our room at Flatts by the Sea, it didn't stop bloody raining!

Flatts by the Sea is a bakery, cafe, restaurant and minshuku (B&B) all rolled into one. On arrival we were given a warm welcome and told dinner would be served at 6.30pm. Home from home or what? We sat and had OZZIE wine (bliss!) in their cute tatami mat restaurant. There were 2 other families staying too. It was all very friendly and cosy.

Me and mum at our table at Flatts by the Sea's tiny restaurant

Yoko, Ben’s wife gave us a fantastic lowdown of the dishes as she brought out each course, each one in some way containing local ingredients, from handpicked blueberry pie to her mothers 3 year old fermented fish (that was for breakfast) Funazushi? I can’t remember but it did taste so strong and stank.

Wonderfully presented sashimi dish at Flatts

Bless Mum. She was praying for a yogurt/fruit/juice breakfast but alas it was Japanese. A Japanese breakfast basically consists of everything mum doesn’t like to eat in the morning: miso soup (a clear soup with tofu and seaweed floating about), rice, fish, Japanese pickles and lashings of green tea to wash it all down with, yum yum.

The room we had at Flatts was a nice, average sized tatami mat room. Shared bathroom but I think all the carpets in there were new (newer than at Tadaya, haha) I’m not quite sure why I have a sudden interest in carpet.

After our yummy Japanese morning breakfast we headed across Noto to Wajima, the home of an infamous market. Important sidenote to anyone staying in a minshuku or ryokan (Japanese style hotel): Once you get up for breakfast your makeshift futon beds are put away by little fairies so when you get back stuffed and needing a lie down you can’t, your bed’s disappeared! More about Wajima in my next post

Oh almost forgot Flatts by the Sea bakery/cafe is definately worth a visit. Yummy cakes and fresh coffee in a Ozzie style surf cafe.

Flatts by the Sea surf style cafe

Yep mum holding the mascot wicker kangaroo in Flatts by the Sea cafe

Adventures in the Noto Penninsula: Ganmon Cliffs and Sosogi Coast

Me and mumma at Ganmon Cliffs

We left Tadaya spa in the morning and set off for the Ganmon Cliffs and the Sosogi coast. The weather had cleared, hurrah! We hopped on one of the sightseeing boats there, I think it was ¥1000 (about 6 quid) for a 20min trip with commentary. It left at 2 and was back in port by 2.20 on the bloody dot. That’s what I love about the Japanese, so punctual, no messing about!

Ganmon was very pretty, a huge cave mouth jutting out of the sea, which was a beautiful turquoise colour. I was tempted to jump in the water but that wouldn’t be very Japanese, far too crazy…! Aftger getting off the boat, I ordered 2 sea snails that I’d seen the locals cooking up on these mini BBQ grills.

Always game for trying the local delicacy. With the toothpick type instrument I was given I pulled out the inner entrails of the snail. Oh my god, I squealed! It was like a big purple slug and all curly at the end. YUK.

By this point I had attracted some attention from some other Japanese tourists (with my squeal) so then felt compelled to eat the darn things. Well needless to say they tasted foul, like salt water mostly and chewy. On return to Kanazawa my stomach was dodgy for days...

The Sosogi drive was very pretty too although I have to admit when we stopped the car at one point to get some photos we realised that the shore was littered with rubbish. Such a shame. The Japanese apparently blame the Koreans, say that they dump rubbish in the sea and it makes its way across to Japan. The Koreans say the same thing about the Japanese. Talk about absolving responsibilities!

Anyway, after a long drive we found our next port of call. Flatts by the sea. Run by an Australian Ben and his Japanese wife Yoko? Recommended by a girl I met Erika who lives nearby. I’ll write more about Flatts in my next post.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Adventures in Noto Penninsula: Wakura Onsen

View at Tadaya Spa, Wakura Onsen

An easy drive up to Wakura. Still raining so we decided to go to the Ryokan (Japanese style hotel) that we booked for one night, called Tadaya Ryokan. To anyone tempted by the beautiful web pictures of this place, take note! This isn’t really a luxurious place. Maybe I’ve been too spoilt elsewhere but for the money we paid for the one night, ¥38,100 (249 quid) for 2 people including breakfast and din and I was expecting a higher standard. OK SORRY moan over!!

Boiling meat in a nabe type pot

Tadaya’s saving grace is their food. Beautifully presented and they bring each of the 7 courses to your tatami mat room. Our waitress was so lovely (in fact all of the staff were friendly) and gave us a running commentary of each dish in Japglish (half English, half Japanese) I even understood some of what she was saying. Progress!

Seirin-ji temple, Wakura Onsen

We went for a walk into Wakura Onsen town. I had already read some comments about the town and yes it isn’t exactly picturesque, big concrete high rise hotels are the biz here. We did however find a beautiful temple Seirin-ji almost hidden amongst a bamboo grove forest. A climb up it’s 100 plus steps takes you to a beautiful viewpoint. It was definitely the nicest place in Wakura onsen town!

After dinner we went to the onsen (hot spring) which was only part of the ryokan that I think was new. It was quiet, clean and pretty big. We sat in the outside rock pool overlooking the ocean. It even stopped raining for a few hours.

Me in the nud in the onsen (hot spring) overlooking the sea at Wakura Onsen

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Miracle masseurs in Kanazawa

The miracle masseur team at Temomin

If you're working as an ALT you'll probabaly be familiar with having to lug a sackful of books to and from school everyday resulting in permanent aching shoulders. Well this is me.... As well as my school books I also carry around a proper old school Japanese dictionary, my Minna no Nihongo textbook, homework, notebooks..the list goes on.

Well I found a fantastic massage parlour (they coin it "relaxtion space") the other day called Temomin. In fact I lie, I've been passing it for months at Kanazawa station but like other Japanese haven't mustered up the energy to dive in and give it a go. Well the other day I decided to give it a go, and I'd highly recommend it!

It's a crossed between sports massage and shiatsu. No fancy oils, no embarassing undressing and no worrying that your cellulite is being studied in microscopic detail. No, these guys (yes mostly men) work their magic with your clothes on (now that's a first..) I would recommend wearing leggings or loose trackky bums.

So far I've had the 20 min seated neck & shoulders and the 40 minute lower back, legs and feet and both were absolutely amazing. The bonus is that they offer different timed sessions starting from 10 mins up to 115 mins, so perfect if you have some spare time waiting for your train.

Temomin in Kanazawa prices as follows:

Time temomin (neck, shoulders, arms back)- 10 min, ¥1050, 20 min ¥2100, 30 min ¥3150

Body temomin (40 min particular areas)- 35 min ¥4200, 55 min ¥6300, 75 min ¥8400 and 115 min ¥12,600

Foot temomin (lower back, legs, feet, sole)- 40 min ¥4200

To find Temomin just follow the signs to the post office in Kanazawa station, you will see Temomin on your right hand side opposite the German bakery.