Monday, August 4, 2008

Catch up/Highlights

Hey all! Sorry for the wait. Aaron here. Needless to say, we've had our hands full for the past few weeks. Basically, as our time in Japan is nearing an end, we are cramming as much Japan as we can take into our schedule for the last remaining months. Thus, we've been busy. I don't have the time or patience to say everything worth saying at this time, unfortunately. You'll have to get the specifics when we get back to the States, which won't be much longer, mind you. Anyway, I've decided to give you a quick recap up what we've been up to, and a few pertinent snapshots to boot. Here we go. I'm going to try and do this in chronological order.

Okinawa. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures handy from Okinawa. But many great ones exist, and all will be shared with you later on. As for the story, well, I'm sure many of you remember Okinawa as one of the many islands visited by our boys in blue in the Pacific theater of WWII during the island hopping days. Still to this day, a large portion of the island is occupied by American naval bases. Anyway, that's not what we went there to see. We did so much cool stuff--way too much stuff for 3 days. Basically, I swam in the ocean for the first time, tried a local liquor with local poisonous snake in the bottle, ate pig's feet for the first time, saw a castle that was mishmash of architectures from all over Asia, went into a real cave for the first time (like with stalactites and stuff), actually went scuba diving (like with the mask and air tank and everything!), enjoyed some great night life, and spent several hours with a Brazilian-American driver who was used to the right side of the road, and it only took about two hours to fly there from Kansai. Good times.

Right. Gion Matsuri: Okay, there is a really big festival every year in Kyoto called the Gion Matsuri (Andrea, forgive the spelling if it's wrong.) Our local Kyoto friend Andrea took us around town. Even though it was a billion degrees, we wore traditional Japanese summer garb, a special kind of Kimono called a Yukata (again with the spelling.)

It was really nice. We drank some beer, saw a couple parades, and a few hundred Japanese dudes in loin cloths carrying gigantic Shinto shrines on their shoulders, whilst hurling them up in the air and screaming in unison, unintelligable Japanese. Plus, after dark, we sat by the river and enjoyed some dinner beneath a balcony where real Geisha were entertaining some obviously super rich and important men. At one point, they looked down, smiled, and waved at us. In case you don't know. Real Geisha and Maiko pretty much only exist in this particular city, and Kendra is obsessed with them. it's like seeing a professional athlete or something, so that was actually really cool.

Next, Nikko Homestay: Alright. This is a really long and complex story. I'm going to have to cut it down. Basically, we (all the fulbrighters) were invited to go for a three day stay in a city North of Tokyo called Nikko. Kendra had actually been to this city before, on her study abroad with Dr. Covell (The guy who performed our marriage.) I was always jealous, especially of the waterfall she got to see. On this trip, we happened to go to the very same waterfall. Unfortunately, it was so misty, you couldn't see an inch of the waterfall. I'm not kidding. All we could do was hear it. Anyway, we also went to an authentic old-fashioned indigo dying place, where a man who is considered a living heritage icon gave us a lecture on indigo dying from plants. His house was also amazing. One of the oldest buildings around, with an old-school-style thatch roof. The floor was made of clay, with pools of indigo dye. It was really something. We also went to a nearby town famous for its pottery, which we got to sort of participate in. Kendra and I both painted rice bowls, for a small fee. They should come in the mail a few days before we come home. I'm excited. The siteseeing highlight for me, however, was going to the Nikko shrine complex. It was a really misty day, and it was basically magical, with tons of ancient Japanese buildings and thevmost intricate sculptures adorning everything building, wall, and gate. But the buildings were actually trumped by the giant Japanese cedar trees everywhere, compltelely soaked in dew. It's amazing. Any fan of Japanese fantasy would pretty much weep at the beauty of this place. I'll give you one picture that pretty much sums up it's magesty:

And that's just an arch. As I said, we have many more pictures, but I'm trying to be economic here. This complex is also home to a very famous building that has sculptures of monkeys depicting a cycle of life encircling it.

Does this look familiar? Here no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil, right? Yeah. This is where that started. Pretty neat, huh? Anyway, besides the sites, the homestay part of the homestay was just as awesome. We were so lucky. We were placed with a family that consisted of a Buddhist priest, a daycare center owner, a harpsichord player/singer who is studying in belgium, a hand sergeon, and a couple other fellows I never even got to talk to. But guess what, also staying amongst them was an 18 year kid from Australia, a first generation Chinese Canadian, and a French guy that made me feel like a pile of crap. He was 21 and spoke 4 languages. We talked American politics. Always interesting speaking politics with the French. Trust me on that. Anyway, the family was loaded, had a huge house, has a billion important guests, and wouldn't stop feeding us beer, sake, and wine. Basically, it was an international gluttenfest of merryment, in broken English, Japanese, and French. Amazing people. We appreciate everything they did for us so much.

Okay, literally the next day, on to Mount Fuji. FUJI-SAN: This was pretty much the apex of our entire Japan journey. Pun intended. If I showed you a picture of Mt. Fuji, you would recognize it, and I've been to the top. That's pretty cool. It's also pretty cool that it was over 95 degrees at the bottom and near freezing at the top with plenty of snow left over. I think it took us something like 8 hours to reach the top, and something like 4 hours to get back down. We took about an hour sleep break at what they call a "flop house" toward the top. That was around 11:00 p.m. We had to reach the top by 3:30 or something to catch the sunrise, which is the whole point. We almost made it, but we were close enough that it still counts in my book.

Here's a great picture, just before sunrise. It shows you not only how steep this mountain is, but also, that it is above the clouds, made completely of volcanic rock, and so high up that you can see the curve of the Earth. Pretty cool stuff.

Sunrise. This is pretty much the pinnicle of existance for the Japanese. If you recall, the nickname of Japan is "The land of the Rising Sun." Well, we watched it rise from japan's highest point, and I have to say, it was pretty friggin' cool. Hundreds of Japanese men started yelling Banzai! as the sun broke the horizon.

Sometime around 5:00 a.m., we started the descent, but not before taking a glance into the crater of Fuji. It's really interesting actually. Few volcanic mountains have such a defined and complete crater as this one. You can see the glacier-like splotches of snow on the far side. Really alien. Andrea commented that it would make a great backdrop for someone filming something taking place on Mars. I agreed with her.

I think this picture speaks for itself. There's the edge of the mountain before we began the grueling descent. You can see how far above the clouds we were. I don't know the stats off the top of my head, but I'm sure you could look it up if you really wanted to know how tall the mountain is. Though this view was awe-striking, our experience soon went sour as we climbed downward. We quickly had to shed off all our extra layers, as the morning sun, free of any clouds, began to cook us. We basicallyed cascaded down a series of rocky crags for about 4 hours, while inhaling volcanic ash and nearly breaking our ankles. We also found out in the days to come that, despite our liberal use of sunblock, we all got sunburned pretty bad. Japanese sunblock is pretty weak, but it was really the altitude that got us. Did I mention we were doing this on less than an hour of sleep after climbing up for eight hours? But, as horrible as it sounds, I can't tell you how worth it it was. The saddest thing is that the photos will never do it justice. I guess you'll just have to go there and climb it yourself.

Recent Times: Last week we went to see two different fireworks shows as well. We went to see Kobe's special celebration just a couple nights ago. It was down by the harbor, and was absolutely great. We ate a Jamaican restaurant afterwards that proved a worthwhile experience. More exhilerating though was the show we saw the previous night near Nara, which just happens to be the biggest annual fireworks in the world, by the way. That's right. It has the world record, and they broke it this year. Most rockets, over longest duration. We saw the greatest fireworks show that has ever happened. Kind of a cool thing. I think I might just skip Independence day from now on. Just kidding. Asia did invent fireworks, afterall. Unfortunately, none of our pictures really turned out. It was yet another, had to be there, sort of thing.

Anyway, that's just a taste of what we've been up to. We can't wait to get back to the States and tell you all more of the details. We also have a few thousand pictures. The next few weeks will be chaos, as we prepare to leave, so I don't know when I'm going to post again. But, until then, stay cool everyone!

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