Last hike

The packing is getting done quickly, and the sun was shining today, so I took time out for a last hike. I wanted to do a loop of the interesting trails north-east of Yaizu:

  • up Mt. Takakusa
  • down to the Kurakake Pass
  • up Mt. Mankanho
  • down the Sakasagawa River and past its lovely tea farms
  • through the 100+ year old brick tunnel under the Utsunoya Pass
  • and down the historic Old Tokaido Highway to Okabe, where I could get a bus back to where I left my bicycle at the starting point

It was a lovely walk. Here are some of the sights along the way.

First, some of the early cherry blossoms. This is the major sign of spring in Japan, but actually I prefer the bright yellow nanohana flowers. They’re related to canola.

A patient stone Buddha at the temple at the trail head.

What could be better than a sweet potato and a view?

Terraced tea plants in the Sakasagawa valley. The slope at the top is about 45 degrees. The track in the foreground allows a motorized cart to haul supplies up.

You can always rely on Japan for this kind of thing: just outside the historic brick tunnel was a fiberglass model showing the pass and the evolution of the ways to get over/through it, first the original trail and then a series of tunnels, each one longer than its predecessor.

And the brick tunnel itself.

What I’ll miss, and what I’m looking forward to

Less than two weeks left of my time in Japan. I started to brainstorm a list of all the things I’ll miss here. I’m also making a list of all the things I’m looking forward to in Canada.

What I’ll miss

  • fresh rice balls for lunch every day

  • seafood, seafood, and more seafood
  • green tea
  • bird-watching in the paddies, along the streams, and down at the port

  • the beautiful green glow of the rice paddies in July
  • jogging routes with a view of Mt. Fuji

  • learning Japanese vocabulary and kanji every day
  • chocolate-covered peanut clusters - I’m just crazy about these things, I’ve been eating ~1 pack per day

  • the kindnesses of many many Japanese librarians, neighbours, relatives, and others
  • my ESL students at ShizuDai and at my Wednesday night company class (I’ve been teaching two classes every week)

  • watching my boys with their grandparents
  • the wonderful elementary school and pre-school that have helped my kids grow in so many ways
  • hot lunches in the schools every day (I’m not looking forward to going back to the nightly sandwich routine!)
  • the amazing teachers at the swim school who patiently taught both boys to swim
  • huge play structures and playgrounds all over Japan
  • the train system
  • our digital bath tub: Tell it how much water you want and how hot to make it, and the tub does the rest. And it seats three.

  • heated toilet seats
  • my gym, especially weekly “combat aerobics” and the cute Ewok who leads it
  • dollar stores, aka “100 yen shops” - sooo much better than Canadian dollar stores!

  • A4 paper - I can’t explain why, but metric paper just feels better than 8 1/2 x 11”
  • being tall
  • barbershops - cheaper than Canada, and a free shave, shampoo, and neck massage are included!
  • the closed stacks at Shizuoka University Library - they smell of old books, and they look like the library in The Name of the Rose

  • Japanese service standards - service in Japanese stores and restaurants is x100 better than Canada, and there’s no tipping either
  • all the rain at the same time - it rains 80% more in Shizuoka than Vancouver, but the rain is all concentrated in three months and the rest of the year is sunny

On the other hand, there are a few things I’m looking forward to in Canada:

  • family, friends, co-workers
  • a bike with gears
  • a workplace with a pool that’s open all year round
  • cooking! - I haven’t cooked dinner in a year.
  • food, lots of food: If I made a list I wouldn’t know where to start, but let’s focus on the carbs: gluten-free breakfast cereal, gluten-free pasta, gluten-free pancakes, gluten-free beer … oh, and cheese!
  • a little less salt in my diet
  • not eating riceballs for lunch every day - okay, I like them, but I need some variety
  • a reasonably priced cup of coffee
  • central heating
  • coffeeshops with (a) free wireless and (b) no cigarette smoke
  • summers where 25 degrees is considered hot
  • being able to communicate like an adult again
  • more space at home - our Vancouver condo is 850 sq. ft., and it will feel like a palace after one year in our 450 sq. ft. apartment here!

I’m sure I could add more to both lists, but anyway you get the idea. I’m sad to be leaving here, but happy to be going home.

My secret hideout

Since I’ve only got a few weeks left in Japan, it’s time to reveal the location of my secret hideout. It’s a little cafe called Kamakura about five minutes from home. I go here a few times a month when I need a quiet place to work and/or a getaway from the chaos at home.

It’s got a lovely traditional interior: paper window screens, hand-plastered walls, dark wood furniture, and cushions in an old-fashioned dye pattern. They play tasteful jazz.

More important than the ambiance is the food. They offer a variety of cakes which I can’t eat, but also traditional Japanese desserts which I can. This scrumptious wonder includes kanten (the translucent cubes), preserved fruit, and sweet bean jam (anko). On top of all this you pour a light molasses syrup (anmitsu) from the little pitcher at the back. When I’m feeling particularly deserving I order a more elaborate version which includes a scoop of ice cream.

Needless to say all the cups and plates are handmade ceramics in a rough and rustic style.

The one thing Kamakura lacks as a secret hideout is free wireless. Apart from that, it’s been a lovely escape.

(Nutritional note: In writing this I did some research on kanten, the translucent cubes. Basically they’re a kind of flavoured gelatin. They’re made from seaweed, which sounds weird but means they’re a tremendous source of fibre (healthy!). The common English translation is “agar”, but an alternate and far more beautiful English name is “Japanese isinglass”.)

Smallest orange in the world

Japan has many kinds of oranges: mikans, ponkans, etc. This is a kinkan. Looks fairly ordinary, right?

But let’s zoom back a little …

Isn’t that crazy? This has got to be the smallest orange in the world. Even crazier is how you eat it: you don’t peel it, you just pop the whole thing in your mouth. For some reason the peel is the sweetest part. Demented.

High Road to Shizuoka

(Starring Mt. Fuji, an elevated highway above the ocean, and a place called 大崩 (Okuzure), meaning “big landslide”. You’ll see why in a minute.)

There’s a narrow road that runs along the coast from Yaizu up to Shizuoka, between Mt. Hanazawa and the water. It’s basically cliffs most of the way along, and very picturesque. I decided it would make a good jogging route. I could start from Yaizu Station, enjoy the views along the way, and at the next station I could jump on a train and lazily zip back through the tunnel under the mountain.

The road is cut into the cliffs about 50 metres above the water. On the inner side there’s about a metre of shoulder and then a vertical wall. On the outer side there’s a guard rail and then a whole lot of air.

To make it interesting for joggers, there are a couple of narrow tunnels which have no pedestrian space at all.

But the views make up for the dangers …

At the section called Okuzure, the road leaps off-shore and becomes a sort of elevated highway above the water.

Elevating a highway above the ocean is obviously an expensive operation. Couldn’t they have run this section along the cliffs, like the rest of the road? In fact, when you get closer you can see that the highway was originally cut into the cliff.

And then you get to the “big landslide” bit, where the whole cliff came down and obliterated the road.

One last shot of Fuji. The straight section of the elevated highway points directly at Fuji. I’m sure that’s not an accident.

Mikans, Tea, and Eagles

Another beautiful Tuesday morning, another impromptu decision to skive off work and go hiking. This time I set out to climb Mankanho, whose name could be translated as “Full View Mtn.” I was hoping for a view of Fuji, and as you can see from the pic above I was not disappointed.

I biked to the trail head in Hanazawa, a little hamlet up a mountain valley on the north edge of my town. (Side note: being able to bike to trail heads is a nice feature of where I live.) Hanazawa is known for having historic wooden homes with foundation walls made of stones in a diamond pattern. Around Hanazawa are mikan orchards which are reaching the peak of their season just now.

In Hanazawa I passed a home with a built-in fruit stand. They were selling mikans, and quite cheaply, so I bought a bag for the hike. It’s on the honour system: drop your money in the blue box and take your fruit.

Of course, 100 m up the trail I went through a mikan orchard where I could have stolen a knapsack full of mikans for free. Perhaps that’s why they were so cheap back at the fruit stand.

Further up I passed through some lovely tea fields, with tea bushes in carefully manicured rows.

More tea close to the summit.

The trail was steep in a few places. It’s hard to tell from this picture, but this bit was basically a flight of stairs going straight up the mountain, probably equivalent to a 10 story building.

The summit was ideal, an open grassy space with a 360 degree view. There was a little shrine, a shelter, and picnic benches. Thanks to the beautiful weather I could see all the way to the Izu Peninsula across the bay.

To the south was Takakusa Mtn., which we climbed back in August, and a peekaboo view of the Yaizu port area. By the way, this picture gives a good idea of what happens to tea bushes that are not trimmed. That’s rows of tea bushes on the right. On the left, it’s also tea. I don’t know why the farmer stopped trimming that area, but you can see it will turn into jungle in no time.

As I lay on the grass at the summit, I saw a pair of eagles rising in slow circles in the thermal updrafts. I include this picture to prove what an incredibly bad bird photographer I am.

Larva Update

— For those interested in our Rhinoceros Beetle Larvae: We changed their dirt last weekend, which gave me a chance to photograph the larvae.

The adults are extremely cool looking. With thanks to Wikipedia, here’s a pic of the Japanese variety, called a Kabutomushi カブトムシ, literally “helmet beetle”. There’s a funny short horn from the top of his forehead, and a much longer antler thing below.

The larvae are, well, larvae, so they’re a little less photogenic. However, they’re huge. Here’s one of our little guys after I uncovered him. He’s usually under 10 cm of dirt.

Here’s a close-up, with my pinkie in the picture for scale. He’s definitely longer and fatter than my pinkie.

The rice harvest

— If you’re dying for more videos of rice farming machinery at work, you’ve come to the right blog post.

First, a reminder of the story so far: Back in May we watched the plowing of the paddies, and the incredibly cool footage of the rice planting machine. In June we saw the green glow of the rice seedlings. By August the rice plants were almost a metre high.

Soon the tops of the rice plants began to bend over under the weight of their nutritious golden cargo. In fact, a lot of the rice was knocked flat by the typhoons that came through. Fortunately, it turns out being flattened doesn’t affect the rice at all.

By mid-September the first paddies were being harvested. I knew the rice harvest was going on, because I could hear the machinery at work, but I never managed to make it to the paddy in time to see the action. Once I got there just after they finished, and managed to shoot footage of the harvester driving away. Turns out it’s a tracked vehicle, like a little tank. Notice also the long tube on top. That will be significant later.

Finally I caught the farmers in action. Notice the pointy horns which pick up the flattened rice, and then the continuous track of white arms which cut it off and pull it into the machine. The rice seedlings are planted in neat rows, and the harvester seems to be able to harvest two rows at a time.

Here’s the front-on view. This shows how the rice plants are turned horizontally after cutting. The root end (with brownish tips) is sticking out of the machine on the right. Meanwhile the tops of the plants are inside the tractor, where some sort of threshing device must be separating the rice from the stalks.

Once the rice is separated from the rest of the plant, the straw etc. is blown out the back of the machine.

So the rice accumulates inside the machine. Now we get to the neat bit with the long white tube. It turns out that once the harvester is full, they bring it along side a truck and use the tube to empty out the rice.

Here’s a close-up of the rice-filled truck. Needless to say, the smell is heavenly.

Lastly, the straw is tied in small bundles and hung out to dry on frames that are erected in the paddies. I’m told that the straw will be sold to cattle farmers as feed.

You’ve now seen the entire rice planting cycle, from plowing to harvest. I may be a total geek, but I think this stuff is fascinating.

Mt. Hanazawa

I woke up Tuesday morning to discover it was gorgeous: cool, blue skies, clear air. I immediately decided to skive off work for the morning and hike up a mountain.

The mountain was Hanazawa, which sits along the coast between Yaizu and Shizuoka City. The trail head is at [A] on the picture below, near the big spa-hotels that overlook Yaizu. The trail winds its way along the ridge to [B], the peak of Hanazawa, and then goes down the far side into Shizuoka City. The peak is only 450 m high, but there was a lot of up-and-down along that ridge.

At the trail head. There’s some very pretty red flower which blooms in profusion at this time of year. I really should learn its name.

The lower parts of the climb wound through tea plantations. Along the ridge there were occasional peekaboo views back toward Yaizu, as well as Pacific vistas. This part of the coastline is called Okuzure, which means “Big Landslide”. There used to be a highway running along the water, but it got blocked by a huge landslide. Now for safety the highway runs on pillars 100 m offshore.

Higher up the forest was mostly cedar. The last typhoon did a lot of damage here, and in places there were 20 or more trees down in a small area. Someone had been through with a chainsaw to clear the worst obstacles, and also the path was covered with a carpet of fallen cedar branches. As a result, the smell of cedar was heavenly (although I do feel bad for all the downed trees).

My favorite place on the trail was a bench built overlooking the Pacific. Someone had left a small Buddha to watch over hikers. I sat here to rest and enjoy an orange.

All down the north side I was hoping to see Mt. Fuji, but the forest was too thick. Finally, quite closed to the bottom, a bend in the trail provided a view of Shizuoka City with Fuji in the background. That mountain is at least 60 km away in this picture, which gives you a sense of how enormous it is. All through the summer the air is too hazy for Fuji to be visible, so it’s only in the fall and winter that you start to get views like this.

Needless to say, after this excellent morning hike I spent the afternoon hard at work to make up!

Swan dive

The view from my in-laws’ back deck at sunset. I’m so tempted to do a swan dive into that lovely gold-green sea of rice.