This month was a big one for many students here in Sano. Each school hosts a Sports Day similar to Field Day in the States. But here the event is different in many ways. First off, there is no grass field as one would expect. Instead there is a dirt field next to the school where the students compete for the day’s events. The competitions themselves are also very different. There is no singular sport where students compete individually, but there are team sports and games. Students compete for their homeroom class, and after each competition awards are announced from last to first place. When last place is announced, the students cheer wildly for themselves and each other, all the way up to first place.
The most fascinating element of the day for me was the collective efforts of the students, staff and teachers to put the day together. They all help out carrying chairs from inside to the field, setting up tents, painting lines on the dirt field, operating the PA system and so on. The day started with the student body marching to a live – and impressive – student orchestra. There were local politicians and other notable faces in attendance (I honestly didn’t know any of them, but how would I?).
I also went to Tokyo Disneyland. Not on Sports Day but on the following Monday. It’s the first time I’ve ever been to, or even cared to go to, Disneyland. The idea of it never really thrilled me, and since I can get motion sickness from watching the shaky footage of a home movie, it never really made much sense for me to go to a happy place full of rides. But I went with Elizabeth and our neighbor LeeAnne, who by the way is a Disney superfan and sings only Disney songs – in character – any time we go to karaoke. She’s not like crazy psycho fan who dresses as a princess and uses Cinderella tampons or something (as far as I know) but she definitely knows her stuff.
We arrived at the happiest place on earth and found it to be really really busy, especially for a Monday. But maybe time doesn’t matter when you want to put a smile on your face. And since we have been in the Halloween season since St. Paddy’s Day ended, there were lots of people dressed in character. The outfits were amazing, and very convincing (I did not know there were so many Asian princesses, but then again I can probably count on one hand how many Disney films I’ve actually seen). It was a cosplay convention for cute and sexy cartoons, and it was decided then that I too was a Disney fan, at least when it was in the form of short frilly dresses, thigh high stockings, strappy heels, and impractical hairdos.
Then I got sick on the carousel. Yes, the mundane horsey ride thingy that just goes in a sluggish little circle and plays twinkly music made me dizzy and gave me sweats and the feeling that I might either fall over or throw up on Mickey. Neither happened, but it slowed me down a good bit and made me kind of grumpy, apologies to my companions. But, I did manage to get on a few other easier rides such as Splash Mountain, the flume ride, with no trouble.
We left Sano for Ito Sunday morning, stopping off at Atami to visit a castle along the coast. The castle isn’t a castle like you and I might think of a castle, but it’s a sort of tall, not-so-huge-building-compared-to-a-European-castle-but-still-impressive-by-itself-castle-even-if-I-don’t-really-think-to-call-it-a-castle-castle. In fact, the castle was built as a tourist attraction, and the town never actually had a castle. But there are model displays of other castles around Japan. And the view from the top is stunning. The coastline is not low and flat as it is on the east coast of the U.S. It has steep, rocky cliffs covered with trees, and occasional white sand or rocky beaches. We took a taxi there, and taxis in Japan are expensive beyond reason. We decided to take a bus back to the station, as it was much cheaper. We boarded the bus, on which we had to stand as it was packed also beyond reason. On the way the bus stopped several times, letting off one or two people only to pick up ten or so more. We were packed like salty little fishes in a square steel can as the bus bounced along the narrow, twisty roads along the coast, jostling us left and right as we approached our destination. The man in front of me kept pushing his way back, and several times his hair grazed my nose. I was tempted to kiss him on the neck to discourage him from pushing back any further, but decided to be quietly annoyed instead.
We continued on to our destination, K’s House Hostel and Onsen, located in Ito. There we met a friendly Swiss guy who showed us to a lovely little restaurant a few minutes from the hostel on foot. The restaurant was run by a couple I think, and a lady took our order (and made for us several modifications to the otherwise meat-heavy menu) while a man cooked an amazing meal. It was a cozy little space where you had to remove your shoes before entering the dining area to be seated on cushions at low tables. We loved the food and the hospitality, and definitely would go back.
We stayed nearby for the rest of the evening and Elizabeth and I reserved the private onsen for a little while. While K’s House had a come-as-you-are policy for its public onsens, it is common for onsens to refuse entry to anyone with tattoos. In any case, we squeezed into the small stone slab pool of natural water from nearby hot springs and enjoyed a soak. While the concept is nice, I found it difficult to hold a conversation as the running water is just so loud that I can’t understand what is being said without yelling.
The next day we went to Shimoda and took a cable car to an overlook to hike around and enjoy the view of the surrounding beach and ocean, then we headed to Shirahama Beach. This time we were sure to be early to wait in line to get seats on the bus. Sure enough, the attendant and driver packed us in as tightly as they could.
The beach was lovely, relatively small, and flanked by tall, steep rock cliffs. The tide seemed strong, the water choppy but warm. The three of us set up camp at the top of the beach – it has a curiously steep slope – and Beth and I went down to the water. We explored the area a little bit before resting on our towels while Melissa went for a walk, only to decide to leave and check out the town. As the sun worked its way toward the horizon, we gathered ourselves and went back to the station and headed back to the hostel. It was dark by the time we were on the train. It gets dark very early here. We changed back at the hostel and walked along the coast to find dinner at Hamazushi, a chain of train sushi restaurants that have order screens in English. You just push the button to order whatever you want, and it arrives at your table on a conveyor belt a short time later. There’s one at the mall in Sano, and we visit it frequently, having our usual kanpyo, inari, kappa, and wasabi nasu sushi.
While we waited for our number to be called we popped into a Seven Eleven to pick up a few things for snacks the next day. I got curious about the Japanese anime porn so we amused ourselves at the magazine rack for a few minutes.
The next day we went to Jogasaki Coast to hike along the water. I can’t even describe how beautiful it is there, so have a look at the photos and captions which sort of show its majesty, but only through the limitations of my little camera.
After a lovely hike we went to Mount Omuro and took a sky lift to the top to walk around and again enjoy breathtaking views of the area. There we met an Italian guy who is working as a computer programmer in Tokyo. The four of us found a small, modest restaurant right there in the tourist trap, and to our humble delight the server offered to alter some menu items for us so that we could have meat-free meals. The menu is very simple, each guest ordering one of maybe eight main dishes and getting a “set” – an appetizer specific to that day, and a dessert as well. We were told the appetizer, which consists of five small portions of various dishes on a single plate, would not suit our diets. However, the chef prepared from scratch two special plates just for the two vegans at the table. We were thrilled. The food was amazing and the hospitality was unparalleled. In fact, omotenashi, a word meaning Japanese hospitality, is everywhere here. The United States has nothing on Japan in the way of customer service. And, tipping here isn’t a thing. You don’t do it. It isn’t expected. But you still get amazing service. I suspect I will be quite annoyed and disappointed back home, where hospitality is not a guarantee, only an add-on to the basic business-customer transaction. Anyway. The experience was memorable, and I hope to return there again.
We had to make our way to the next hostel in the town of Kawazu. It’s a small town, known for its hot springs and national parks with waterfalls and excellent hiking. The owner of the hostel met us at the train station. She is a petite, lively, happy Japanese woman the same age as me, with a husband and two young children. The hostel is part of their home, and the living room, kitchen and bathroom are all shared spaces with guests. Imagine having a household share with up to twelve other people. But it was cozy and inviting, and I we liked being there.
Until the spider.
Elizabeth and I had a room to ourselves, which was unexpected but offered when we arrived. We gladly accepted. Melissa shared a room with a young German guy who was hardly interested in us and spent most of his time on his phone in his bed. Another room had four people who were traveling together: three Americans and a Canadian, all working for Japan’s JET program.
Beth was stirring. She couldn’t sleep. Then she grabbed me – clenched me – and gasped. Gasped. Gasped. “There’s a big spider over there.” GASP. CLENCH. “It’s the biggest spider I’ve ever seen.” GASP! CLENCH. GASP! CLENCH. “I think it’s on the outside of the door.” I peered over to the sliding paper doors that separated us from the hallway and fumbled for my glasses. I put on my sunglasses. I took them off. I found my glasses and put them on. “It’s definitely on the inside.” GASP! GASP! “How can you tell?” she asked. “I can tell by the shape of its silhouette.” GASP! We turned on the light. She grabbed her phone to use it as a flashlight, and I told her to stand back because she’ll freak out otherwise. She did. The spider ran. It moved quickly. The Americans and Canadian asked if we were all right. They brought over bug spray, and I chased the spider across the room, spraying it the whole time with no effect. It ran under Beth’s pillow and up the wall, then behind a door. I grabbed a brochure for Shimoda. When it reappeared, I whacked it, and it exploded like a little grenade. Its legs just flew off its body like they were bullets in a German Luger. I gathered them up and disposed of the spider corpse. All the commotion gave me a headache, and we went back to sleep.
The next day our host gave us a ride to the bus station and we took a bus to some waterfalls where we hiked in the forest along crystal clear waters. We caught a bus to the train station and then came back to Sano, arriving after dark and feeling exhausted from our adventures.
Be well, friends.