Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


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Mt. Iwaki: Yama Rock and Nanohana

Every year there is a small, free-entry rock festival near the base of Mt. Iwaki, and I knew I had to go as soon as someone told me about it.  It had been almost a year since I’d gone to a live show, so I was really looking forward to watching some local Japanese bands out in the sun all day.

I was actually quite surprised at how good the bands were; not really being a fan of Japanese music, I was a little skeptical of what the acts would be like but was mainly just going for the experience, and of course, the food stalls that no Japanese festival is complete without.

The first band was a punk trio featuring two girls dressed in nurse uniforms on bass and guitar/vocals, with a guy on drums in a doctor’s coat.  They were awesome and had a really fun style, saying “odaiji ni!” (get well soon) as they walked off stage after their set.  A very enthusiastic drunk guy appeared at the front of the audience a couple of times, punching the air to the music and encouraging everyone else to join him.  He did manage to get two American ALTs to come up and jump around for a bit, but otherwise he was rocking out solo.

On the way back we stopped off to check out the Jersey cow dairy farm for ice cream.  We couldn’t actually see the cows, although we could smell them, and it seemed like the only thing there was the tiny shop where a grumpy lady was selling fresh dairy products from the farm.  I chose caramel banana ice cream after some intense indecision over that and my all time favourite flavour, mocha, and it was well worth the risk.  I’ll be back for the mocha.

We also drove to see the nanohana, a huge field of beautiful yellow rape blossoms in front of Mt. Iwaki.  It was gorgeous in the hazy late afternoon, and the hundreds of bees seemed to be enjoying the flowers too.


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Hakkoda

The weekend before last, Aomori AJET organised a cabin party at Hakkoda, a ski resort in the centre of the prefecture. There were about five cabins, with up to nine people staying in each one.  It was basically an excuse to drink, play games, have snowball fights and have an AMAZING breakfast the next day, thanks to the organisers who went to the American air base to get supplies.  We had bagels, peanut butter, bacon, BROWN BREAD!!!, eggs, waffles, nutella, Tropicana, cinnamon rolls… I love my daily porridge and banana but this was a very welcome treat.

The majority of people spent the next day skiing and snowboarding, seeing as we were right next to a ski resort.  Some people went a little further to Hakkoda, a slightly more notorious mountain known in particular for being covered in ‘snow monsters’.  The friend I came with had decided not to snowboard that day, so we headed over to Hakkoda to get the ropeway cable car to the top of the mountain.

It took about five minutes to get to the top in the cable car.  My friend and I were at the front of the queue to get on, so we nabbed the space at the front of the car and gazed out of the window as the trees receded into the distance and the glistening bay of Aomori gradually came into view.  It’s clear how Aomori got its name!! (Ao(i) = blue, mori = forest)

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Gooooing up!

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When we got to the top, we just stood and stared out at the 360 view of rolling hills and snowy forests.  I felt very at peace with the world.  Behind us, others were getting ready to ski down the mountainside.

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Skiing through the snow monsters

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In contrast to the huge drop down in front of us, we turned around to see an expanse of white that seemed to stretch for miles into the distance.  Some people had strapped on mini-skis and were shuffling off for a snow hike.

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The snow monsters were impressive, but up close they were beautiful.  The wind had frozen the snow into jagged crystals, which were beginning to melt in the sun.  It was so gorgeous that I joked about taking my coat off and lying down to sunbathe.  It didn’t sound as stupid once I said it out loud, so I went with it and it may have been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  I found the perfect slope and lay out my coat.  Lying on the snow in my t-shirt, on a mountain, soaking up the sun in its beautiful blue sky, the only sound being the whisper of melted snow falling to the ground… ultimate bliss.  We stayed like that for at least half an hour until a cloud lurked over and it felt like the temperature dropped by about 10 degrees.  But it was lovely while it lasted.

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Climbing Shirakami-dake

Japan has a generous amount of national holidays, one of which fell on Tuesday this week.  Rather than spend the day travelling back and forth between my sofa and the fridge, I actually did something impressive/physically demanding!  I am fortunate enough to live an hour away from a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of four natural sites in Japan) called Shirakami-sanchi, which means “white god mountain area”.  It’s a huge mountainous expanse of virgin forests and beech trees, with Shirakami-dake being the highest peak in the area at 1,232 m (4,042 ft).  My neighbour Bridget had already suggested that we climb it at some point, so we decided to go ahead and do it.  She usually does it three or four times a year, but she hadn’t done it for over three years since having her kids.  I didn’t really think much of the climb until she was briefing me the day before on what to bring, what to wear, and to make sure I’d be ready to leave at 6am so that we could be back before nightfall.  I suddenly realised that I would be climbing an actual mountain and not the nice, gentle Surrey hills that I’m used to.

On the way there Bridget explained that if there were no other cars in the car park when we got there, we wouldn’t go ahead with the climb because her husband didn’t want her doing it without anyone else around.  This was because a) there are BEARS roaming around and b) it’s very possible that something could go wrong when climbing a mountain!  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly hoping that there wouldn’t be any cars when we got there, but alas there were four of ’em.  So we set off, me with my rucksack full of snacks and Bridget looking much more like a pro, with her bear-bell softly ringing and her backpack leaving a smokey trail of incense to keep the mozzies at bay.

From the car park to the hut where you sign in (for obvious safety reasons) there was a very steep hill.  This wasn’t even part of the hike, but we were already breathing pretty heavily before we’d even got to the top of the road.  I could tell we were both silently panicking about being able to last a whole day of climbing.

The registry hut thing

The registry hut thing

The journey begins!

The journey begins!

We officially set off into the forest at 7:45, tracing the narrow path that wound along the edge of a sheer drop into the trees below.  An hour into the walk, I realised this mountain was no joke – it was really steep and rocky, and we were constantly having to haul ourselves over giant branches and uprooted tree trunks that lay sprawled over the pathway.  I was immensely grateful for the walking stick Bridget lent me!  When she told me she’d been training for this by walking an hour up the steep hill near our house every morning for two weeks, I suddenly realised why… but I still managed to be fitter than her, hurrah!  Daily yoga practice is paying off.  (It’s surprisingly hard work!)  We were shown up a few times by other hikers though, one of whom was actually RUNNING up the bloody mountain!!  Insanity.  He wasn’t even breaking a sweat.  We saw him on the way down again before we’d even got to the top, and then AGAIN when we were coming back down, he was going back up again!  We stopped to talk to him, and he modestly explained that this was his 2nd time coming down that day and it takes him a mere hour and a half on the way up alone… NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T DO THAT.  The man was a machine with calves of sinewy steel.

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Scaling one of the many obstacles

Scaling one of the many obstacles (this was on the way back down)

Because I was constantly looking at the ground to watch my footing, it was easy to forget to look up and admire the incredible scenery that surrounded us overhead.  (I think I just devised some kind of metaphor about life?!)  It was definitely worth the risk of falling over to catch glimpses of the distant mountains in between the trees.

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We finally made it to the top four and a half hours later.  The last hour felt like it went on for ages… we kept seeing people on their way back telling us we were nearly there so it was  nice to have some encouragement.  This part was so steep we had to actually use our hands to climb up the path, but I could see the little cabin at the peak of the mountain getting closer and closer.

The misty cabin

The misty cabin

I thought it was weird that there was so much mist around but then I realised it was the clouds.  It was amazing to see a whole load of them rolling in and obscuring the top of the mountains one minute, and then completely disappearing the next.

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Cluds

Getting closer!

Getting closer!

It was such a relief to finally get to the top.  Even though the sky wasn’t very clear, we could see layers and layers of the mountains’ blue silhouettes fading into the distance, and it looked like Autumn had singed the forests with warm shades of red and yellow.  It was at this point Bridget confessed that she had been really close to turning back about an hour into the walk, but we stopped to rest frequently and it actually got easier the more we walked.  And it was all worth it in the end!

Peak

Peak

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Unfortunately a lot of my photos came out blurry as I tried to use the fancy settings on my camera but ultimately didn’t do a very good job of it!! Got some learning to do.

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I actually found the hike on the way down much harder than on the way up – I can climb upwards pretty fast but I really struggled getting down the steep rocky parts and had to go down on me arse a lot of the time!  When we reached the end at 16:00, over 8 hours after we started, I was more than ready for the onsen.  On the way there however, we drove past two of my favourite eikaiwa ladies, and they invited us in for tea!  One of them had a little dog who kept sitting on my foot under the table.  I was so tired though I could barely stay awake talking to them, but we didn’t stay too long thankfully.

The concept of onsens in Japan seems quite strange when it’s considered inappropriate here to wear something that reveals part of your back, but going to communal baths with a bunch of naked strangers is actively encouraged and a perfectly normal thing to do.  I decided that being embarrassed about it would just be pointless, so I just went with it!  There was a big bath in the middle that was about 45 degrees and was apparently good for muscle ache.  It was amaaaazing, even if I had to force myself to stay awake…  I can definitely see why onsens are so popular, and they’ll probably save me from a wintery death when it gets really cold.

The next day I had muscle ache in places that I didn’t even know existed, and I had to walk like John Wayne for the most part.  Maybe if I do it enough times I’ll be like the crazy running man… Not sure I want legs that look like lego bricks though.