Saturday, December 16, 2006

Youtube Video

We presented a slide show at our church about a month ago now. This is the first segment on youtube.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

So, um, moving right along...

(Joanne, insert bad pseudo-Jamaican accent here): "Holy shit, mon!" I mean, I had NO idea my last post would cause such controversy. But I have to say, if that's what I gotta do to finally get my audience to comment, then I will continue! It was really awesome to, read, such varying perspectives from all of you. (And yes, Nathan and Rose, my thoughts on the commenting thing have changed since last we talked).

Having said that, let's move on to a lighter topic for today, shall we? Some good news, in fact.

Life is looking up. Jeff had an interview with DSBN (that would be District School Board of Niagara) yesterday...finally...with some help of a connection from the VP of the school his mom works at. And they finally put him on the "to hire" list, which means that he is now allowed to apply for any postings that come up in the Niagara board. He will also shortly be placed on the "supply list," meaning that he can be called in to teach when other teachers are sick. Of course, first he has to get yet another police check, which will take 6 weeks, before he can actually supply. Baby steps, I tell ya, baby steps. But we're heading in the right direction. So as of second semester, (February), he'll be able to start supply teaching in Niagara at the seconday level.

Then, due to another contact with our neighbour, Jeff has started volunteering at a school in the Hamilton board on Tuesdays. He's only been three times, and they already love him. (Are any of us really surprised?) I mean the stories he's got from there already are incredible. So probably in the new year, he'll get on the supply/to hire list for Hamilton too, through the recommendation of the principal. But for Hamilton, he'll be on the elementary school list. And then, ironically, he'll probably have to make a decision between the two boards. Because once they start calling you for supply work, you'd better not turn them down. Three "nos" and you're off the list. Yikes.

November 15th was our six month mark. Six months of job frustration for Jeff. Congratulations,'re well on your way!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Cultural Musings

what are you doing?
Originally uploaded by Bob Jones.

So, we were at my parents' place on Saturday night, celebrating my dad's 72nd birthday. After dinner, my niece (that's who the shot is of) said something about Canada not having any culture. A precise echo of my own thoughts. But this conversation got me thinking, just as my students have gotten me thinking, and tonight I present you with my thus semi-formulated (and not very original) thoughts.

Of course in comparison to many countries, Canada seems to be greatly devoid of culture. I mean, how can you compare with the thousands and thousands of years other countries have on us? I've tossed this idea around in my head as I've travelled to and from Niagara and Mohawk Colleges, time on my hands, and as I've missed the festivals and formalities of life in Japan. But there is one aspect of Canadian culture that has become all too clear to me on our return to Canada, and my return to the world of ESL in North America...the culture of tolerance.

When we were in Japan, I was proud of our Canadian tolerance. I loved how Jeff and I always tried to understand and appreciate the Japanese way, even when it drove us crazy. We were always open to new ideas and ways of thinking. But now, back in Canada, I grow weary. Very weary. You could look at this whole tolerance thing in many different lights, but being an ESL teacher, that will be my shadow of choice for this evening.

Since my return to the North American ESL classroom, I have welcomed with open arms students from China, Syria, Cambodia, Switzerland, Libya, Korea, India, Mexico, Poland, Colombia, Taiwan, and Palestine to my fair country. (Yes, I do feel like I'm teaching a virtual UN this term. And notice the peculiar absence of Japanese students...hmmm...) I have given them a warm, kind Canadian welcome. I have listened to them go on about how boring our planned activities are (like sitting on your ass in Welland is so much more exciting), complain about how all Canadians are fat and need to diet, and flat-out state that they aren't interested in various culturally-related activities like Halloween because "it's not our culture, so let's just study English." I have watched them stick to their own cultural groups in and out of class, even when I try my best to mix them up, and I've listened to them go on about what they did last weekend...with people from their same country. And then I've listened to them whine about how their English isn't improving fast enough.

And I have smiled. I have humoured them, gently goaded them... and smiled.

But I finally caved. My tolerance waned. Last week, I almost lost it when my student from India claimed that "Hitler was a great man, and he only killed people when he had a good reason to kill them," said that Schindler's List was based on fiction, and then challenged me to cite my sources when I tried to tell him otherwise! I also finally told my students that I don't ever want to hear them talk about weight in class again because I find it irritating, and that in Canada we really try to see beyond the outside appearance of a person to their heart. (Ya, imagine explaining that to a group of level all began with me writing the word "superficial" on the board and telling them to look it up in their electronic dictionaries!) And I also asked yet another group of students how they would feel if I went to China, studied Chinese, and then told them that I didn't give two figs about their culture, geography, or history because "it's not MY culture...!" (Response? Stunned looks...and no, I didn't literally say "two figs". Are you kidding?)

But don't worry. Through it all, I still smiled. Only the Hitler-supporter felt any actual measure of anger, and that only lasted the 5 minutes or so till break.

My conclusions? I'd rather stick my head in the sand than know the honest truth of how many of my students interpret world history and politics. I'd also rather stick to teaching the subject matter of the English language than get caught up in this sticky, cultural stuff...but that's the joy of teaching ESL in Canada.

But overall, I have to say the worst feeling is the sense of being used. I mean, this is Canada. We pride ourselves on being multicultural. But I keep getting the sneaking suspicion that the students we are welcoming in and teaching are not as interested in embracing multiculturalism - in plugging into Canadian society as it were - as we are. Let's face it: the English language is a powerful tool. A lot of these students simply want to grab the tool and learn to use it as fast as they can, all for their own gain.

And heck, why not? More power to them. But it doesn't mean I have to tolerate it.

How can I tolerate it when Jeff and I just spent the last two years eagerly exploring every facet of Japanese life available to us, whether boring, uncomfortable, or confusing? When we were so willing to put our culture to the side in order to learn from a new one? Or was that us just being Canadian? So therefore we shouldn't expect the same of people from other countries? Oh listen to me, will you? "shouldn't expect the same of people from other countries." There's my tolerance lingo again...

I'm so confused!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I've really missed writing...

So I wrote this, oh, like a month ago. And then I never posted it because for a time I just lost all interest in blogging... But after some prompting...both Joanne's and Brian's comments come to mind... I am posting the following entry. And hopefully more will soon follow. Think of this one as a preemptive warning!


I've been steadily losing interest in my (our? ya, our) blog since our return from Japan. I've faithfully posted pictures of our lives here about once a week, to keep you all coming, but truth be told, my heart just hasn't been into it.

Life has certainly been interesting since our return to the land of cute, fuzzy squirrels and freakishly early falls and long winters, but I have kept much of my thoughts inside. It has only been out of courtesy to you, gentle viewers (kudos to Kirlin for that phrase...I always love it when he says that!) The fact is, it's easy and amusing to marvel at and criticize a country that's not your own, but when it comes to home turf, it's a much more delicate issue. The re-entry shock has been strong, and I fear sounding overly negative as I process my thoughts. And so, I've kept them mostly to myself (and to Jeff...oh, poor Jeff...somebody give that guy a medal, PLEASE.)

But I've started to realize that if I don't begin blogging something real... soon... this blog is going to die an untimely death. And so this is my disclaimer. As you read, keep in mind that these are the words of someone who is feeling out-of-sorts in her home country, and with her fellow people. The words may sometimes sound negative or uncomfortable. But heck, they might also provide you with a fresh perspective. And it's not like anyone is forcing you to read this thing anyhow!


And that's all for now. We'll see what else comes out in the next while.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Here's to You, Jo...

So you miss us, do you? It's always nice to be missed... ;) Here's some memories of the very short time we had together...this time in Canada, not Japan... how strange.

Joanne wanted to play tourist when she was here, so we took her to our hometown of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and then out to Niagara Falls. Here we are in front of the old Courthouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I have many good memories surrounding this building, having worked at the Shaw Festival theatre for 3 seasons.
And beside the humungous planters, threatening to devour us!
Jeff got to expand his photography skills a bit while we visited Niagara Falls. This is a view of the Canadian falls...the better falls, of course! The boat is the "Maid of the Mist."
And a final shot of Joanne and I in front of the falls.

Looking at these pictures, it's really amazing. We really do live in an absolutely beautiful part of the world. Because of all our visitors this summer, we got to look at that world again through tourists' eyes...and not take it so much for granted.

We miss you too, Joanne, and we hope that Japan is treating you well. To be honest, there are still many days we'd love to just hop on a plane and go back! But we're committed for now, so we'll persevere. Yes, dammit, we will!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Missing Maria

Maria graced us with a two-week visit all the way from mosquito-land Winnipeg in the summer. Here's some fun shots taken on her last day in humble St. Catharines...

Here she is herself, lounging in Mark and Rita's pool.

And here I am, trying to stay cool by reading a magazine in the pool.

And here I am, being beaten up by crazy Jeff.

And Maria, post Jeff-beating.

And Jeff, just being Jeff...

And Lisa, clothes and all, who finally just decided to jump in after all of our badgering. (It WAS really, stinking hot.)

Had a great time, Maria. Miss you lots.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Ottawa in June

Hey everyone...

So this summer was a definite blur of ups and downs, of learning once again what we both love and hate about our wonderful Canadian home. And now, here we are in September, and as one of my previous posts revealed, it's finally hit that we really are gonna be here for awhile! So since that's a fact, we might as well all get comfortable with this new situation, and I better start sharing about our lives in Canada!

With that said, I've been browsing through some of the pictures Jeff took throughout this mixed bag of a summer, and I've realized that we had some pretty fabulous times reuniting with family and friends. So over the next while, along with updating you on the joys and stresses of "life after Japan," I want to share some of these great pics with all of you.

In June we went to our country's capital with Dagmar and Dave for a weekend. Here are a few of the sights Jeff captured during our time in Ottawa...

We stayed in a quasi-bed and breakfast/old folks' home that was situated really close to the ByWard Market. On one of our strolls through the market, we noticed these funny looking dogs. When Jeff asked their owner if he could take their picture, the guy suddenly started this routine with them, involving amazing obedience. They actually have treats hanging out of their mouths in this picture, and they are patiently waiting for the "okay."

And a close-up...

And these two pictures are of a nearby cathedral taken from the balcony of our room at something like 5 in the morning. No, I was not up. That would be Jeff, with the other woman, his camera... :)

Thursday, September 14, 2006


So I've almost made it through my first full week back to teaching. Wow. What a mess. I mean, it's mostly been a good mess, but what a mess.

After over three months of generally lying around, I've HURLED myself back into the workplace. This is an amazingly welcome change. I am a teacher. I love teaching, and after a summer of nothingness, I was starting to question my existence. It's amazing to be in a multicultural ESL environment again... to be challenged and stimulated again.

That being said, I'm already starting to second guess the path I've set myself on for the term. I landed a 15 hour a week contract at Niagara College. I had hoped for the max of 20, but thems the breaks. Not one to be deterred, I kept up my contacts at Mohawk College, and was rewarded with a lucky phone call last Friday (coincidentally, also my birthday). Elizabeth called desperate for teachers. I offered her the only time I had left, Monday and Tuesday afternoons. And I found myself accepting 8 hours more of teaching work. This brings my total to 23 hours of teaching per week (ya, kept my math skills), with a WHOPPING 8 contact hours on Tuesdays.

EEGAD! What am I doing????

So after my Niagara classes finished on Monday, I hit the road to Mohawk, where I was WHIPPED through a quick tour of the office, the classrooms, and the school in general. I received some textbooks and was on my way...didn't even get the class list till I walked into the classroom on Tuesday. Nothing like teaching on the fly.

So now not only am I still trying to learn the system at Niagara (still don't have a computer password, but I found the stash of free binders yesterday!) but I've thrown myself into a new system at Mohawk as well! Complete with parking hassles, lengthy union explanations, and not-yet-clear contracts.

I have to say though that I LOVE the two contrasting environments. Niagara is more what I'm used to from Brock: an academic prep program with its share of spoiled 18-year old machismo Latinos (sigh) and Asian students who've picked "Rookie" as their English names (double sigh). Mohawk, on the other hand, is much more multicultural and has many immigrant students as well as students of a variety of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. It's a very exciting environment.

But from now on, it's delivery pizza on Tuesday nights!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Reality Bites?

So, it's September, and I keep getting this nagging feeling that we should be getting on a plane and going back to the land of sushi and onsens.

But, of course, we're not.

I think I've been feeling this way because the past two Augusts were spent in transit to Japan. It's kind of an eerie feeling, and it's a little hard to shake off.

As I walked from the parking lot into my new workplace on Tuesday morning, it hit me like a brick. I've started a new job here. It's for real. We're staying. Since Tuesday morning, I've teared up on numerous occasions. Just about any news story or sappy email can make me cry right now. It's kind of embarrassing, really. But at least the tears mostly manage to keep from rolling down my cheeks... although I still have to monitor what music I let myself listen to!

Luckily I work with a bunch of people who, like me, love to travel for a living and understand the pain of leaving a place you've become attached to. We talk about "re-entry shock" and even the "grieving process." I know, it sounds extreme. But don't belittle it, please. It's all part of the ups and downs of the gypsy life we've chosen. But even in the sad times, I wouldn't trade it for a second.

Shari said it perfectly yesterday..."When I came back from abroad, my boyfriend told me it was like I was doing 50 in the 80 zone." It's so true! I often feel like I'm living life in slow motion...I'm observing so much, and thinking so much. Thank goodness it's just a "re-entry" thing. I was worried that at 30 I've already lost my bounce!

Work, by the way, is fantastic. I teach the Level ones. They are a mix of warm and wonderful people from South Korea, Colombia, Mexico, Switzerland, Venezuela, and China. Ironically, I have no Japanese students. That's probably a good thing. I have had to bite my tongue many a time already to keep myself from breaking into Japanese. It makes me realize how much I "cheated" when I taught at Minami chu. I have to re-learn my teacher speak! I caught myself pointing to my nose in class today when referring to myself. I even need to re-learn my body language!

Jeff continues his quest to finish our bathroom. He bought beautiful ceramic flooring today from Home Depot. And no, no teaching positions have been offered. Supply work begins in October. Till then, painting jobs call.

This is it. We're really back.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Bathroom Reno

We've been working on our new house now for about a month. This past week was the first week I wasn't working fulltime while renovating. The floors on the main floor are done, the stove and fridge are in, and the carpet is in. So why not start with the main bathroom?

I ripped the tub out with my brother's help. I realized the mirror in the bathroom was actually a built-in cabinet. After taking the cabinet out of the wall I realized that the wall I saw wasn't actually the outside wall. There was another wall in behind, with another built-in mirror/cabinet and the funkiest wallpaper I've ever seen. It has mermaids riding dolphins or something of the sort. I had to post a picture.

During the demolition process I pulled out some piping which was insulated with newspaper. I love that. It was the St. Catharines Standard from July 1926! This house is older than I thought. Very cool.

Only problem is that there is still only a hole where our bathroom used to be. It's been five days without a tub or shower. At least we have water in the rest of the house!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Fate of My Bra?

So, many months ago, I wrote about how my bra (my favourite one) was stolen when I hung it outside overnight.

Check out the following headline:
Kanagawa man arrested for stealing more than 2,500 items of women's underwear

Admittedly, this man is more into "panties" (gotta love that word), but it gives you a glimpse into the unfortunate fate of my poor bra.....
as well as the sicker side of Japanese society.

Monday, August 14, 2006

I Knew He Would...

So Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine about 3 hours ago, and it's already splashed all over my international internet news links. I know that between what's going on with Lebanon/Israel and the "terror" news from London, you may not have the time - or interest - to keep up with Japanese politics. Well, look no further, friends! Let me educate you...(briefly)

Fourteen "Class A" war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni, listed as gods. In addition, a museum at the shrine states that the Japanese were forced to enter World War II as an act of self-defence. And Koizumi, without reasonable explanation, insists on going there year after year. As you can imagine, China and Korea are in a state of uproar. The average Japanese person can tell you all about the nuclear horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But ask them about their opinion on Yasukuni, and you may get a blank look. Ya.

But don't listen to me. Read it for yourself at the following link:

Japan PM Koizumi visits war shrine
The "FACTBOX" link on the left side provides a nice and tidy overview of the shrine.

For the past week or so I've been reading the lead-up news to the August 15th anniversary date of Japan's surrender. Everyone knew it was coming; everyone knew he'd do it. But it's still disappointing. It simply reveals Koizumi's stubborn pride and arrogance, and makes China, Korea, and the rest of the international community trust him less.

This ridiculous quote from the article is a terrific example of this arrogance:
"I am here only to pray for peace," said Yasuteru Omiya, 28, a government worker, from Nagoya, central Japan.
"I think he (Koizumi) could have come on another day, but I also have the feeling that other countries should not interfere with our country's affairs," Omiya added.

Hey folks, if you want to be an isolated island, go for it! But if you want to be a part of the UN's security council and reap the benefits of playing ball with the international community, you gotta start abiding by some of the rules.

As you know, I love Japan. But the country's deep-seated pride and arrogance worries me on good days, and makes me rip-roaring mad on the bad ones. This may be a bad one.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

We Said We'd Never Do It Again...

On July 21st, life FINALLY got busy again. We bought a house. A fixer-upper in downtown St. Catharines. Yup, you heard it right. Another fixer-upper. I guess we're just suckers for punishment. But it's an improvement from the house in Fenwick, I promise. For starters, it has a floor in the basement. We consider that a step up from dirt. And, as Jeff said, "well, okay, most of the plumbing needs to be replaced. But at least it has plumbing." Ya.

So here it is, the wonder that has sucked up all of our spare time in the past two weeks:

Here it is from the front...

and here it is from the back.

Did I mention we have friends from Japan coming tomorrow? Heh heh.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Pictorial of Goodbyes

After our travels, we spent one last week in Ota, saying our goodbyes. Here's some of the highlights:

Mikiko graciously let us stay in her one-room apartment for the week. And her sister Emiko was with us for half of that week! Here we are in that one room. Life was cramped but cozy. Unfortunately, as soon as we got back to Ota, I developed something suspiciously flu-like. You can see I'm looking a little green. But it didn't keep me from laughing (albeit half-asleep) all the way through "Lonestar: State of Mind." Didn't hurt that Emi had the whole stinking movie memorized! You guys'll be happy to know we bought our own copy. Jeff slips into it every now and then... "Earl's kissin' his sister again!"

The group at Hitachi that I taught every Monday night (and that Mikiko took over) had a goodbye enkai for us. They were a fantastic group of students: fun and easy-to-teach. The group of them presented us with our own husband-wife set of chopsticks! Thanks, guys!

Friday night we had our last Ikkyu get-together. Here she is. This picture almost brings tears to my many good memories at this place!

Me and Ayako on the left, and Yuka-chan on the right. Yuka is coming to Canada August 4th for a visit!! YAY!!

Mikiko and Casey on the left. Mi-chan had quite the night that night. Mmmhmm, she did. And Christian on the right, Jeff's snowboarding buddy.

Minoru and Tsugio Urano treated us one last time to lunch. This couple really made Ota feel like home to us. I'll never forget my initial meeting with Minoru in Kohikan, while I was sitting there by myself, studying Japanese. He was so excited to meet an English-speaking person that he talked to me for over an hour.

The Uranos always took us to interesting local spots, introducing us to great restaurants and attractions right in the Ota area. Tsugio is the one who helped me dress in a yukata last year for the Ota summer festival. And they also introduced us to our favourite tempura restaurant and the Tatebayashi art gallery. We miss you very much!

Our last day and night in Japan was spent with -who else but Joanne- in Tokyo. She took us out to this amazing Japanese pub in Kichijoji that serves big, fat, delicious gyoza. I'm telling you, if you go to Tokyo, get yourself on the Chuo train line, and head to Kichijoji. It's not as overwhelming as the rest of Tokyo, but it has great shopping, my favourite jewelery store, and even a cafe-lined street (with a Starbucks!) that leads to a beautiful park, complete with its own swan-shaped pedal boats. We'll see you in August, Joanne!! Woo-oo!!

And just as we were calling it a night, Tokyo surprised us one last time. Right at the entrance to the train station was this amazing honky-tonk band. I mean, they were GOOD! We stood mesmerized for quite some time. I kept wondering what on earth would possess a young Japanese man to learn to play the I said, one last wonderful surprise.

And that concludes the Japan chapter. This particular Japan chapter, that is. I expect there will be more.

Monday, July 24, 2006

And all too soon, it was done. I mean, it was really done...

It was time to go home. Back to Ota. Our plan for the day was simple: go to the last onsen of the Honguu area, and then hit the highway and drive all the way back. It was Saturday morning, and Joanne needed to be back and teaching on Monday.

The first dilemma of the day: 3 hungry Westerners who were absolutely UNWILLING to have udon or any other Japanese quick-fix for breakfast. Normally not a problem. Just hit a convenience store. But for once, we had gotten ourselves so in the middle of beautiful nowhere, that there weren't even any of those in sight. Panic set in. And then, we saw this: a convenience store on wheels. This guy was driving the streets, selling his unlikely mix of foods, including -YAY- bread products. We were so excited we couldn't even wait to get in the car to eat!

With bellies full, we went to Yunomine Onsen. It was another incredibly quaint stretch of town, and clearly an onsen source. The water bubbling through town was all boiling hot. You could buy all manner of food that you could then put into this caged-off area to cook. Yes, that's right. Boiling water just bubbling up from the earth. As you can see, eggs were a popular choice, although we also saw people boiling potatoes and even garlic. You could also try coffee brewed with onsen water. I quite liked this although it didn't agree with Joanne that much.

This is a picture of the onsen area in the town, with the boiling source water on the left. This onsen offers a choice of hot spring baths. You can use the regular style bath, or you can try the "kusuri onsen" ... medicine hot springs, where the water is 100% hot spring water, and really stinking hot!! Joanne and I went for the second option. It was really old school, hard core bathing. A small change room, and then an equally small bathing area, with taps where you could rinse yourself off, and then one deep, square bath. And no soap allowed in the bathing area at all. I guess they want to make sure to keep the water totally pure. We stunk like sulfur after this one.

This bath is the third option. I believe it's called "tsubo no yu." It is a little shack of a bath house. What you see is what you get. It holds a max of two people. You pay and then get the shack to yourself. You'd think people might take advantage of the system and take exhorbitantly long baths. No chance of that. Shortly after seeing someone enter the shack, we would soon hear exclamations of "atsui! ATSUI!" (hot! HOT!). And soon after that, said bathers would emerge very red-faced. Not worth the price of admission, if you ask me. But a neat idea.

After lingering in the town most of the morning, Jeff and Jo managed to drag me out. I really didn't want to leave. I really didn't want it to all be over.

And then we drove. And drove. And drove. Just for fun, here's what Joanne's view was most of the trip.

We arrived in Ota at 2 in the morning, and crashed at a crazy place called the "Mongolian Spa." If you want to know the full story, ask us. But it involves wearing colour-coordinated towel-like outfits, and sleeping in a room full of loudly snoring strangers on blue mats. Ya. Only in Japan.

In the morning, Jeff thankfully dropped me off at Mikiko's before he drove Joanne to the train station where she caught her train back to the jungle of Tokyo. If you didn't believe me before, here's the proof: the Daihatsu, post-trip, in front of Mikiko's apartment. We really did it. Three of us. And it really was that packed full. The whole time. It's a good thing Joanne's short and we all have keenly developed senses of humour is all I can say.

Can I get a wooo-oo wooo-oo?! ;)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Our Wonderful, Bittersweet, Last, Full Day

We had an absolutely packed, but absolutely amazing last full day. We started by driving the 40 minutes to Shirahama. We wanted to start the day at this oceanside onsen resort town, enjoying a dip in the hot springs and a stroll along the white sand beach. The onsen is amazing. Jeff's and Joanne's favourite the whole trip. As you can see, (don't look too closely!) it's right on the ocean. If it's a windy enough day, the waves splash into the onsen. This one is strictly an outdoor bath, as usual segregated by sex. Even though we were there in the morning, it was still quite crowded. But the ocean view is breathtaking! There are a number of small pools, and if you get too hot, you can climb onto the rocks to cool down. (However, I think only the men do this!)

Here's Joanne and I lounging on the rocks by the ocean right after our bath.

And then we went to the beach. WOW! Can you believe this is in Japan?? Suddenly, we felt like we were walking around on some tropical island! The sand was so white, and the water was this perfect turquoise. Funny thing is, the current strip of white sand was imported from Australia after the original bit was washed away! I guess they just couldn't part with such a good thing...

After checking out Shirahama, we started on our last coastal drive. Our goal for the day was to drive along the coast from Shirahama to Shinguu. Then we planned to head back inland to Hongu for our last night. The LP listed a number of places to stop and admire the rugged scenery, and we spent our day doing just that. It's amazing how you can never tire of looking at jutting rocks and swirling sea. As Joanne put it, "Today rocks! We're rockin'!" Well said, my friend. ;)

This picture and the one above are of a set of rocks in Kushimoto known as "Hashi-kui-iwa." The Japanese say that the pillars look like hooded monks walking in line to a nearby island. To be honest, we saw the resemblance this time. Maybe all the travelling and imagining finally got to our brains!

After a tonkatsu dinner in Shinguu, we drove back to camp, making it in time for a soak in the Watarase rotemburo. This was one of my personal favourites of the trip. There is something completely breathtaking about quietly bathing in an outdoor bath at night. The baths were HUGE, more like small pools, really. At one point, I was alone in one, and I actually did swim! The night was peaceful, the stars were out. I found myself not wanting my time there to end. It was a very sentimental night for me, as I knew we were heading back to Ota and then soon to Canada.

After returning to the camp, each of us with one large can of beer in hand, we went and sat by the river to enjoy our last night. Jeff made a little fire for us to enjoy, and we bundled up to keep bugs at bay. I remember wanting so badly to remember each and every sensation from that night. I had completely fallen in love with the Wakayama area, with its perfect blend of ocean, onsens, mountains, rivers, and camping. I spent a few minutes focussing in turn on each of my five senses. I watched the ripple of moonlight in the river, the glowing of the fire, I tasted the bitter fuzziness of the beer, listened to the crackling, to the hushed voices, I smelled the smoke and the dampness, and felt the warmth of my hood and the flame.

I'd like to have that night back.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Paradise Found

When I read about the Kii-Hantou region of Wakayama in the LP, I knew that this was not a place to be missed. As our time was running out, there were compromises we had to make, places we could not see. I was willing to give up a few stops, but not this one. Its combination of mountains, cheap river-side camping, spectacular coastal drives and famous, yet out-of-the-way onsens most definitely called out to me. I thought it would be the perfect way to end our travels. And it was.

We started our day with (sigh) more traffic. We had driven quite off our path to find the love hotel, and we ended up driving back through the city of Wakayama just to get back onto the -toll- highway. We had spent most of our trip avoiding the toll roads as much as possible, both for cost and sight-seeing purposes. However, since the area we were heading into was really mountainous, Jeff had figured it would be best to take the toll roads as far as possible before hitting the windy, curvy roads that take a lot of time and make Joanne feel kinda queasy.

Ah, yes, well...once again, we hit the highway, and we... STOPPED. I mean, when we moved, we generally went no faster than 5 km/hr. Luckily, the sun was up, and we were prepared. We read. Yes, we read. ALL of us. And we thought nothing of it, really. Like I said, when we moved, it was usually only at about 5 km/hr. So Jeff drove with his book open on the steering wheel. Don't worry; we were practicing safe reading. As soon as traffic got moving over 10 km/hr, Jeff put the book down. At one point, I looked up and saw a young Japanese couple in a mini-van peering at us and laughing quite hysterically. I guess it did look sort of funny. And they couldn't even see poor Joanne squished with everything else in the backseat reading her book!

After over an hour of not-really-driving, we saw the sign for the love hotel we had stayed at just that night. "You mean all of that sitting in traffic (not to mention paying for it!) just to get us to where we started this morning??!!" Jeff was not impressed. So we got off at the next exit (the one for the love hotel) and decided to chance the windy back roads. We had no idea what to expect.

Good news, folks. The Golden Week craziness seems to be confined to the highways. We had NO problems. Very little traffic. It was a longer route overall, but worth it. The mountain scenery was spectacular, and we got to stop at some really interesting sights, like this suspended bridge. And Jo's tummy held up too!

Once we got to our destination, we decided to focus on finding a place to sleep first, and then relaxing for the rest of the day, since the previous day's travels had really worn us all down. We drove into the very rural town of Honguu, looking for the onsens and the camping. As we drove along the river, we soon found the camping. Talk about a deal! We had to pay about $6/night/person. In turn, we got to enjoy the exact opposite of Japanese "auto camp." The guy who took our money motioned for us to plunk ourselves anywhere there was room. There were no official "sites," just tents and cars all happily crammed in together. There were no sticky rules about not having fires either. There was a basic wash-up area provided, for cooking purposes, and toilets, but no showers. But who needs showers when the nearest onsen is only a minute's walk away!

A word to lovers of hot springs: You really MUST visit this area. It is SO worth it. There are three beautiful onsens in this area, each very unique, and each within a minute or two (by car) of each other. The one closest to us, which we could walk to, was Watarase Onsen. This onsen features the largest rotemburo (outdoor bath) in the whole Kansai area. At night, it is simply magical. Then, there is Kawa-yu Onsen. This one is really unique. The road through town runs parallel to a shallow river, only about ankle-deep. While the river water is cold, the water bubbling up through the gravel river bank is warm, even hot. You can play here all day! Just bring a little shovel, sit your butt on the river bank, and start digging. Soon you'll have your own private bath. Some ryokans even have staff who "manage" the bathing holes, digging them for their guests. This one is a real hit with young families. One family even had their dog soaking with them! But, as you can imagine, you'll want to wear a bathing suit to this one. It is, after all, smack in the middle of town. Finally, there is Yunomine Onsen, which has a small complex of baths. We went there on our last morning, so I'll save description of that one for later. Oh! And if all that bathing weren't enough, you're only a 40 minute drive from Shirahama Onsen, a super-old and super-famous bath right beside the ocean. More on that one later, too.

Other than finding our destination for the next three days and two nights, we did little else. We had dinner at a small restaurant where we could watch the bathers at Kawa-yu, and then we relaxed at the campsite. It was a gorgeous night. Golden Week was at its peak, and the place was packed. Families sat around fires, lit off sparklers, played by the river. We met a very nice couple who shared their delicious sake with us while Jeff was surrounded by a group of elementary-school aged boys who wanted to practice their English on him. It was a very relaxing night.