Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Our new couch

For the past year or so Joe and I have been making do with very little furniture. We've acquired a few things here and there as time has gone on, but one thing we've done without up til now is a couch. Luckily, I've had my chair that I inherited from my predecessor, but Joe's had nothing except the chair at the kitchen table — not exactly something you want to just flop down on to relax after work.

Several months ago I tried to convince Joe we should buy a couch, but we were looking at a minimum price tag of $300 or $400, and that was for some pretty dinky, low-to-the-ground couches. Joe just seemed too big for all of them.

But recently we spotted a classified ad on Get Hiroshima for someone selling their couch for 2,000 yen ($20), so we went and had a look. Amazingly, it sat up a bit off the ground, it actually had a bit of cushion and it was long enough to stretch out on. And the back folded down so you could sleep on it (albeit with a metal support bar down the middle).

We snapped it up, and Joe recruited a co-worker to use his school's truck to deliver it to our house last Friday.

Once we had the couch, we bought a cover (the original nylon covering was torn) and a rug to put over the tatami (those woven grass mats — hate 'em). Just our luck, the local department store was having a half-off sale on a bunch of carpets, so we got one pretty cheap.

So, I present to you our mini makeover of the family room!

It's so cozy! We're so excited! An actual couch!

Yes, that is a TV you see, too. My supervisor gave it to me for free a few months back because she bought a new one. The cool thing about this TV is the remote has a "bilingual" button. Sometimes I can hear news broadcasts dubbed in English if I hit the button. Sweet!

Now all the room needs is a splashy picture to brighten up the wall. And perhaps a region-free DVD player so we can watch DVDs on the TV...

Thursday, September 18, 2008


A little taste of heaven.

When Joe first saw an advertisement for the DOUBLEOVER Cafe, we were intrigued. That's an awfully ballsy (or terribly unfortunate) name for a restaurant. Then Joe's co-worker told him that this place is known for its sinful waffles and pancakes. That sealed it. We were going.

Our first trip was several months ago. We went for a late breakfast, hoping to find Belgian waffles (something we have yet to see around here). I was practically giddy to see dishes like the above pictured on the menu. However, when we went to order, we were told we couldn't have the pancakes and waffles — those were limited to the dinner menu. Of course. Duh! Pancakes are for dinner, silly.  We had to order from the lunch menu and ended up eating spaghetti for breakfast (brunch, whatever).

This summer we decided to try again, planning to eat breakfast for dinner. And this time, to my delight, the cafe had a new menu. An English menu!

A very, very interesting English menu.

Luckily, I had my camera on me (though I didn't realize the settings were goofed up, so I apologize that the quality's not the greatest).

The menu starts out with a generous offer for patrons celebrating their birthday at the DOUBLEOVER.

I love the last part: "There is surprise more if I have you make reservations!" Hmmm....

The menu just got better from there. Here are some of my favorite parts:

"Cheese & Curry Omelette: I wore delicious curry on a tender omelette!"

"Doubleover Salad: It is salad of popular No. 1 that teriyaki chicken stepped on!"

"Fry Pig Ear: I fried a sliced soft pig ear lightly!"

I wonder if it really is pig ear?

"Garlic Ware of Hormone: I baked a fresh hormone without the smell in garlic!"

YES! Just what I wanted! A FRESH HORMONE! MMMM!

"Caviar & Cheese of the Bruschetta: I pick you up on the bread which I baked, and please!"


"Meet Omelet: I take meat sauce of the pride well, and please!"

"Chicken Teriyaki Rice: This is disadvantageous unless I certainly eat!"

I would like to know what they really meant to say there...

"Salmon Carpaccio: I lay in stock of the first thing today and offer it!"

And the best goes last. Ah, it's like a gift to discover this kind of Engrish!

"Garlic Ware of the Small Meat: I baked small meat removed from one cock a little in garlic!"

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Wanna go for a ride?

This is the Dome Zero, an old Japanese sports car prototype that was on display at the Hiroshima City Transportation Museum earlier this summer. Man what a sexy car! Too bad it never saw the light of day.

I personally couldn't have cared less about the transportation museum, but when I saw the Speed Racer-esque ads for this exhibit, I just couldn't resist. So we paid a visit and this is what we saw.

A Lotus

A Lamborghini

Another Lamborghini, the Mira P400. I like this one better.

The Mazda RX500

Gotta love those doors that tip open from the front. They remind me of the DeLorean in Back To The Future.

A Ferrari

Ever since I was a child, I have associated Ferraris with Bill Cosby. Since my parents were huge fans of Cosby, I must've heard his comedy acts on audio tape a million times when I was growing up. So the first thing I thought of when I saw this car was his bit about natural childbirth:

I love Bill Cosby. Bless his heart.

A Porsche

This Porsche reminds me of a pilot I had a crush on a few years ago in Fairborn. One day while I was getting the mail he came spinning up in a car that looked similar to this, only red. My heart almost stopped.

A Dino 246GTS. Yellow, eh.

And another Lamborghini

The third floor of the museum was dedicated to this huge model city displaying every kind of transportation in existence, from rope lifts to space shuttles. Dad, you would've loved this, as well as the large collection of model trains.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Conquering Mt. Fuji

Me, on top of Mt. Fuji at sunrise

Well, we finally did it. We climbed Mt. Fuji.

In terms of physical challenges, it was the hardest thing I've ever done.

For weeks leading up to the trip on Sept. 6, I dreaded the formidable challenge ahead. Climbing the highest mountain in Japan, I knew, would be difficult. But climbing the mountain under the circumstances planned by our local JET association seemed like downright masochism.

The plan was to leave at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning, ride a bus for 10 hours to Mt. Fuji, proceed to climb the mountain all night long with no sleep, watch the sunrise, then immediately climb back down the mountain, visit an onsen for a bath, and then ride the bus 10 hours home, arriving back Sunday night.

Yeah. It was hell.

But I wanted to do it so I could say I did it. And now I can.

Hear ye, hear ye! I climbed Mt. Fuji!

More than 200,000 people climb the mountain every year during the summer climbing season in July and August, the only time of year the top loses its snow cap.

The mountain has an elevation of 3,776 meters — that's 12,388 feet. Think of it as eight Sears Towers stacked on top of one another. But most people start climbing half-way up.

The craziness began at 5:30 a.m. last Saturday, when Joe and I woke up to get ready to catch a train downtown and get on the bus. I laced up some cheap hiking boots and hoisted my backpack onto my back and immediately started to worry.

It was heavy. Crammed inside were a rain suit, my puffy winter coat in a vacuum sealed bag (to save space), a thick hoody sweatshirt, a long-sleeve T-shirt, gloves, a hat, an extra pair of socks, camera, wallet, head lamp, MP3 player, and a bag full of SoyJoy bars and chocolate. Oh, and a 2-liter bottle of water. A damn heavy load to be hauling up a mountain, yet all of it seemed necessary.

We'd been warned that weather conditions on the mountain could be dicey. It would be hot at the bottom (it is, after all, still summer time), but quite cold, windy and possibly snowy at the top. So we needed to dress in layers so we could put on more clothes as we ascended to avoid getting all sweaty and damp in freezing conditions. Likewise, a good rain suit was a necessity because violent rain storms could crop up suddenly.

The climb to the top is punctuated by 10 "stations" and other smaller huts where people can rest, use the bathroom, buy an obscenely overpriced bottle of water, etc. Paved roads go as far as the fifth station, which is where most people start.

Our bus dropped us off at the fifth station for the Subaru Line at an altitude of 2,305 meters, which meant we had 1,471 meters (4,826 feet) to climb. This particular path is the shortest climb — but not the easiest.

This was the view of Fuji-san from our starting point. Doesn't look that bad, does it?

Well, it's an optical illusion. It's a lot higher than it looks.

Did I mention Mt. Fuji is actually a volcano? But it hasn't exploded for 300 years, so I figured we were pretty safe. Although, the map we were given did mark one spot with the warning "Please not be taken out alpine plant lava and so on." Whatever that means.

We paused at a picnic table here to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner before we began our climb. Even here, some clouds floated nearby.

After purchasing some walking sticks, we were ready to go. Here we are at the start. Aah! So happy!

I know we look like two dorks about to embark on a spelunking expedition or something with those head lamps, but actually the head lamps were a highly recommended piece of gear for hikers. There were no lights along the trail. It was very, very dark. The headlamps allowed us to see while leaving our hands free.

I don't know why this picture's so foggy. It wasn't foggy. It might be smoke from the nearby stand selling fried squid and whatnot.

So at 6:37 p.m., Joe and I set off with a couple other friends. The trail was pretty tame to begin with — a clear path, a gentle slope. We were sweating, but with the cool air we felt very comfortable as long as we kept moving. Before long,though, the hike started increasing in intensity.

Soon I was dragging behind. I had a hard time keeping up lugging around that darn backpack. First I dumped off my 2-liter bottle of water to Joe. By the time we made it to station 6, I was ready to leave behind my winter coat to lighten my load. It seemed impossible to climb the whole way carrying all that stuff.

Joe would hear none of it and insisted on cramming my coat into his backpack. I felt pretty bad, but it did help a lot. It made a big difference to ditch some of that weight.

It became apparent after the sixth station that this was not going to be your everyday hike. There would be no level, clearly defined, sloping path. No, it was a steep and rocky path where we were using our arms as much as our legs to pull and push ourselves over the rocks. In the pitch dark. I was very, very glad I wore hiking boots that gave some ankle support.

The climbers' happy, jolly demeanor dissolved quickly into huffing and puffing. It was a lot harder than I'd expected. Keep in mind I'd been working out three times a week since January, so I felt pretty confident that I'd be able to do this. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the Japanese happily filled my head with stories about 80-year-old grandmothers and children who climb Fuji every year. I personally know people who were not in the best of shape who managed to make it to the top. So, while I expected a challenge, I didn't expect it to be ridiculously hard.

I was wrong. It was ridiculously hard. The terrain often required large steps on uneven footing. I could not imagine some shrunken 80-year-old lady managing this.

From time to time we'd pause to regain our breath and look down the slope. Far below, we could see city lights, like we were peering out the window of an airplane. In the distance, lightning leapt between clouds. It was odd looking out and seeing lighting at the same altitude as me. I prayed it wouldn't rain.

Despite the clouds and lighting in the distance, the sky above us was marvelously clear. I had never seen so many stars in my entire life. The view was absolutely breathtaking. So many specks of light... It was like someone threw a handful of glitter across the sky.

There were numerous rest points where people could sit on some benches and perhaps purchase a bottle of water or a cup of ramen noodles for $6 or so. We'd stop to rest and encourage fellow JETs who came by.

No one was in a hurry to make it to the top quickly. We'd been advised to pace ourselves to avoid altitude sickness. We also wanted to time our climb so we didn't arrive at the top too soon, which would mean a long wait for sunrise in freezing conditions.

So we'd pause and admire the stars. Eat a SoyJoy. Drink some water. Make out postcards to mail from the top. Get stamps on our walking sticks.

At many of the rest stops, for 200 yen ($2) you could get your walking stick branded with a special stamp to prove you'd made it that far. By the time you hit the top, you'd have a whole line of stamps on your stick, a rather interesting souvenir. I thought this was neat, so I bought several along the way, though not all of them.

Eventually Joe and I both started feeling a bit upset to our stomachs. Many people, in fact, were feeling a bit ill the higher we went.

One girl ralphed in the restroom at one of the station huts. The smell of the bathroom didn't help matters for those already feeling ill. The toilets were really just a hole in the ground. No flusher. People had to throw their dirty toilet paper into a trash bin in the stall. The trash bins were overflowing.

Joe and I ate a few pieces of chocolate, a tactic some co-workers had recommended to help stave off altitude sickness. I guess sugar is supposed to make you feel better.

The air got thinner the higher we climbed. It got noticeably harder to breathe. Eventually I recognized the tell-tale wheezing and coughing asthma symptoms that I used to grapple with playing soccer in high school.

The station huts were selling cans of oxygen for 1,500 yen ($15), so I split the cost of one with another girl and gave it a whirl, but we didn't really feel any different.

By the time we were 500 meters from the top, we felt totally wiped out. Every couple minutes we stopped to catch our breath. Many, many other climbers dotted the sides of the trail, too tired to go on. The trail had fallen oddly silent as everyone simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other. At one point I set my bag down and just sprawled out on the ground. Who knew laying on ash filled with volcanic rock would ever be so comfortable? 

With 300 meters left, I honestly wondered if I could make it the rest of the way. I might as well have had 50 pound weights attached to each ankle. My legs just didn't want to go anymore. All I could think about was how much I wished I was at home in bed. It got so cold that I put on every article of clothing in my bag, including my rain suit. When we stopped moving, I started shivering. I was definitely glad that Joe refused to let me dump my winter coat. 

As miserable as I was, quitting was not an option. I did not haul my ass that far to give up. So we kept going... and going... and going.

Finally, finally, we reached the top. It was 3:30 a.m. We'd climbed for nine hours. I was elated that the climbing was finally over.

We'd arrived at the top a little early, but that was OK. It gave us a chance to stake out a spot on the east side of the mountain right at the edge of the slope, so we could watch the sunrise without anyone standing in front of us to obstruct our view.

Joe and I laid down and spooned in the volcanic ash. I think I fell asleep for a while.

When I woke up I had to pee. There were no bathroom facilities. Everything at the top was closed because it was one week outside the normal climbing season. Even the place to get the final stamp on our walking sticks was closed, as was the post office, so I wasn't able to mail the postcards.

With no other option, I walked away from our friends, found a rock to squat behind, and went, safe under the cloak of darkness. Luckily I'd packed a roll of toilet paper in Joe's bag, so I was prepared.

Then it was just a waiting game for the sunrise. It seemed to take forever. The horizon started to glow yellow and orange, but still no sun.

We could see an endless line of head lamps lining the trail we'd climbed. Hundreds or thousands of people wouldn't make it to the top before the sunrise.

As the sky brightened, the valley below filled with clouds until we really were looking out over a sea of clouds.

Patience. Finally, we got to see the sun rise in the Land of the Rising Sun. Being at the highest point in Japan, we were indeed the first to see the sun rise on Sept. 7.

Joe took this photo down the side of the mountain. People are lined up all along that ridge on the left. This is what the terrain looked like the whole way down on the descending path — very barren, all ash and volcanic rock.

We had someone take our picture in the spot where we watched the sunrise. We were sitting right in front of a torii gate.

Once the sun was up we walked over to the crater and had a look. I would have liked to get right up to the edge and peer down, but it was roped off. Something about safety, apparently. *huff!*

After another secret bathroom break in a corner somewhere, we set off down the mountain.

It's a toss-up which was worse, the climb up or the climb down.

The path down was different from the one we took up. It was an interminably long, steep, zig-zagging path made of loose ash and volcanic rock. It was like walking through loose sand filled with rocks of all sizes. It was impossible not to slip and fall from time to time. My feet were slipping in my shoes, causing large blisters to quickly form on my toes. My knees cried bloody murder.

We'd been told to make it back to the bus by 9 a.m. or risk the wrath of other passengers who managed to make it back on time. So we were hurrying down with no time to rest — not that there was anywhere to stop. There were no huts at all on the way down. Nowhere to really rest, nowhere to pee, nowhere to buy water. We started back down the mountain with perhaps five ounces of water left in a bottle. We had to make that last for the remaining four hours down the mountain. It warmed up quite a bit once the sun was up, but we couldn't take off our long sleeves because the sun was pretty brutal and we'd forgotten sun screen.

I wanted to die. All I could keep thinking was, "I'm in hell."

We made it back to the bus around 9:30 a.m., ahead of several other fellow climbers. Miraculously, we made it through the whole experience without spraining an ankle or breaking anything. The bus probably left around 10:30 or so and headed to an onsen (Japanese public bath) where we had a Japanese lunch, shower and a soak in a public bath.

Then we had to look forward to the 10-hour ride home.

I don't know if I have ever been so happy to get home. Thank God we'd taken the following day off work. We showered and fell into bed and I didn't go anywhere the next day. I slept and read. That's it.

Tuesday I still felt like I'd been hit by a bus. Wednesday was a bit better, and by Thursday I'd recovered.

The Japanese have a proverb that goes, "One who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool, and one who climbs it twice is twice the fool."

Now that is God's honest truth.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Shikoku Day 6: Katsurahama Beach

On the final day of our Shikoku trip, the goal was to hit Kochi's beautiful beaches.

We headed first to Katsurahama Beach, one of the most famous scenic spots in Kochi prefecture. In addition to simply being a pretty spot with lush green pine trees bordering a very blue sea, it's also supposed to be a good site for moon watching, though we didn't plan to be there late enough for that.

Perhaps part of what makes the beach so pretty is that no swimming is allowed, so you can enjoy the scenery without a bunch of annoying tourists lounging around.

Another big draw for me was the aquarium. It advertised sea turtles. And seeing the sea turtles was, as you'll recall, the whole motivation for taking the trip to Shikoku in the first place.

On the way to the beach we stopped to have a look at this famous statue of Ryoma Sakamoto, one of the key figures behind the Meiji Restoration.

He is revered as one of the first Japanese to realize that Japan's future lay in an open Japan that could one day be the equal of the Western powers. The sign by the statue informs visitors that admirers from all over Japan visit the statue to have a talk with Ryoma, but nobody was chatting him up while I was there.

From there it was a short jaunt to the actual beach, which didn't disappoint. We had fun getting our feet wet and subsequently getting soaked up to our thighs when some big waves came rushing in with the tide. It was a bit gravelly.

Then it was on to the aquarium.

Jellyfish glow in the camera's flash.

The flash also angers the creepy demon fish...Watch out!

Of course the sea turtle exhibit was the main attraction. Gotta love sea turtles...

The sea turtle won't crack a smile for Joe.

There was a large pool set up in the middle of all the tanks where you could watch the sea turtles up close. For a 100 yen donation, you got a Dixie cup filled with little fish and a pair of disposable chopsticks to use to feed the turtles.

Joe tried it first.

Mr. Sea Turtle has his eye on a sardine!

What you don't see is the horror that followed — the blood bath that ensued after the turtle flew up and swallowed Joe's fist whole, clamping its large jaws around his wrist.

OK, just kidding. But it could have happened. Maybe.

That turtle did shoot up and chomp down fast and hard on Joe's tiny fish, snapping the chopsticks right in half. It was truly scary.

Of course, there were no aquarium employees in sight. Nothing to keep dumb people (or, say, small children) from reaching down to pet these dangerous beasts. There was just a warning sign on the wall showing a bloody finger. Like I've said before — the Japanese can be quite lax when it comes to safety. If you get hurt — Your Fault!

Now here I am feeding Mr. Turtle.

He had quite poor pool-side manners, if I do say so. Just couldn't control himself. He gave such a big splash with those flippers that that revolting pool water flew right up into my mouth, which was hanging open in a frown of horror.


But still. They were cute. In a crusty old lumbering kinda way.

After we'd had enough of the sea turtles, we climbed the stairs to the second floor. There wasn't much there, just a whale skeleton... and this:

It's a whale penis. If you don't believe me, look at the little illustration above it on the left. You can see a little arrow pointing to its penis.

Why the Japanese would feel the need to preserve a whale penis is beyond me. It made Joe's day, though.

Next it was back outside to admire some of the other sea life.

An inquisitive baby otter...

Some very playful but stinky penguins...

A seal in a rusty enclosure. Poor seal.

As luck would have it, a dolphin show was scheduled to start while we were there. Joe got a couple really good shots of the dolphins jumping.

The show was entertaining, although we couldn't really see the dolphins under that icky green water. I have to say I thought the entire aquarium was maintained pretty poorly, and the enclosures were much too small. It was depressing.

Leaving the aquarium, I saw this children's shirt for sale at a little kiosk:


I was very tempted to buy it. Amy, you came so close to getting a package for Chloe. She could've worn this during the terrible 2s. Kiss my ass!

From here we decided to hoof it to a beach where we actually could swim. Joe talked to a clerk in a souvenir shop who apparently told him in Japanese that the walk to the beach was probably a half hour. So off we went. It was hot. Very, very hot. Fry-an-egg-on-the-pavement hot.

We crossed a dangerous, heavily trafficked bridge and sweated buckets. I became highly cranky. On the other side of the bridge we realized we didn't seem to be getting anywhere and stopped at some seedy looking hotel and tracked down someone to call a taxi to take us the rest of the way. But after the taxi arrived, to our dismay the taxi driver informed us it would be a 40 minute drive to the beach — certain to be a pretty penny. So instead we asked him to take us back to Katsurahama Beach, and we just took the next bus back to town.

We didn't really have time by that point to try to make it to the beach since we needed to catch a bus home. So we never did get to go swimming at the beach, which was a little disappointing, but maybe we can do it if we make a return trip someday. I wouldn't mind returning to Kochi again sometime. There's a lot more to see and do... surfing, pottery making, cave exploring and, of course, a visit to those peculiar long-tailed roosters.

The bus back took around four hours. It was nice to finally be back home in our own beds.. er, futons. 

So there you have it! This concludes our great Shikoku adventure. Hurrah!