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Published: April 24th 2009
Host family has been up to no good recently. Like springing second row Blue Man Group tickets on me 20 minutes before the show starts in Roppongi and taking a weekend trip to a beautiful place in Nagano-ken called Karuizawa. Karuizawa to Tokyo is like Nantucket to New York and Boston; its the nature place the rich people go to get away from the heat. It isnt summer yet so Karuizawa the town was pretty empty, only about half the shops were open, but it was nice since it wasn't crowded. It's at a pretty high elevation so the air is crisp and clean; once you get out of the train you can notice a huge difference - not to say that Tokyo's air is bad, its just city vs country highlands.
Some of the attractions were the mountain views, farmland (and all the goodies that come with it), soba, and beer. Since the climate is cooler than Tokyo, sakura was at its peak, again. So I got some great shots in at a park we went to. Traveling as a pretty big group (host parents, koji, a cousin, former host child marko, her husband and baby sora, plus marko's
grandparents) we really got a lot done in a weekend. First stop was a lava flow - karuizawa has an active volcano that is constantly steaming. There was a temple nestled in the lava crags...pretty awesome shot of a bright red temple among jagged cooled lava rock.
Once thing you couldnt get away from was soba, delicious soba. Nagano does soba like Waseda does ramen. Small, specialty, hand-made soba-ya everywhere. Ate it three times that weekend with the best one being in the sakura park, handcut and topped with nameko mushrooms and grated daikon. Chilled, of course.
Because there is a ton of farmland in Nagano, Karuizawa's shopping area has a bunch of specialty sausage and cheese shops, something you don't find in Tokyo, as well as dozens of farmstand selling all kinds of spreads and honey. I didn't have time to stop in for too long, but took plenty of samples. Spreads and jams from every fruit and honeys from every flower were all delicious and distinct, and the sausage (German type) held up pretty well. Cheese was kind of disappointing. The Japanese palate just does not accept sharp flavors, and all the cheeses were lacking in
the sharpness, fruitiness, and saltiness that make real cheese some of the most desirable foods in the world. The main shopping street in town was pretty charming, cobblestones and no cars, just people with bikes and on foot buying up the place like only Japanese can.
As for beer, Nagano ken is home to Yo-ho brewery, the most popular and most widely available microbrew in Japan. It may be too big to fall under microbrew, but anything that isnt Sapporo, suntory, kirin, or asahi falls under that category in my book. I picked up a three pack of their seasonal, dark, and pale ale and brought it back with me. The dark stout was the best dark beer out of a can that I've had.
Spending the night was the usual host family gig...amazing hotel where host father is a member in a suite with an onsen in the basement. Yeah - spoiled rich kid in Japan is back in action, especially because they had 24 hour free coffee, tea, mixed nuts, and dried fruit in the lobby along with a bunch of juice and farm fresh milk. Was up until about 2am taking advantage of that as
I was reading.
Next to the station (perfect for the rich Tokyoites) is a mammoth outlet complex with names like Coach, Brooks Brothers, Gucci, etc. Wish I had more time with host mom there. It's just so much fun to watch. 10 minutes before our train leaves, she decides to go Coach. I go with rather than wait with host father and koji because there is no one better to go shopping with. We sprinted there, she dropped 50000 yen ($500) in 2 minutes, sprinted back to the station. Then she disappears again, 1 minute left before train pulls in. As train pulls in she returns with a box full of bento boxes for the ride home. Host mom is amazing. EVERYTHING this woman lays her hands on goes down the last minute, but her plans and her heart are spectacular and it just seems if you stick with her, good things happen. She says very often that it was host father who was successful and brought in the money, but as the housewife it is her responsibility to the the most and best with it for everyone. And that she does.
After getting back to reality this
week, I ran into train delays 3 times at my station. Twice for door repairs, once for someone jumping on the tracks (this is rush hour). Things get delayed, people pile up in the station, but you never will see such orderly madness in your life. Everyone just stands there diligently and waits, no yelling, no pushing (until you get close to the train). When you get off at your stop, you are given a late pass to provide to your teacher or boss by a friendly station attendant. So on to the part about getting close to the trains. When trains stop here, people pile up. There is a pic of a mass of people lined up in the station, up the stairs, past the gates. 20 minutes later, trains start running, but everyone can't get on at once. Things move orderly until you get to the platform. Then as the train opens the doors, its a mad rush/push/melee to get in. This is where the infamous station pushers get involved. IT took me 6 trains to push my way through, and I think being a foreigner, I get the right to be a little more aggressive at the
stations. Meanwhile, as I was videoing and pushing, my host sister was flipping out because I may have broken a few unwritten rules of civil behavior like no photographing unfortunate soles with their noses pressed up against the train window. Whoops.
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