Our Final Week in Japan

We are back in Colorado, but wanted to finish up our trip with a couple short blogs. Our last week in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, was unforgettable. The north is cold; just what I wanted, but with that came rain. The colors were changing and as we came to the end of our 12 days on the dairy farm we were able to witness the maples and birches in red and yellow with the Japanese pine as the backdrop.

IMG_5776 (1024x683)Departing from the dairy farm we played with the kids one last time and Rie gave us a lunch for our travel day with handmade dorayaki which are heart shaped pancakes filled with homemade sweet bean paste. Back on the road we found ourselves in Asahidake a small, 12 building IMG_5781 (1024x683)town setting up our tent in the rain. It proved to be a cold, cold night and the last night that we camped. The following day we enjoyed an amazing hike up to the top of the tallest mountain in Hokkaido, Asahidake. At 6,562 feet we looked across some amazing landscape with a variety of colors and the steam vents that were spewing on the side of the mountain were a reminder of Japan’s volcanic characteristics. From the top we hiked down the other side of the mountain to an area that was desolate, maybe similar to the moon. The colors were vibrant from all the gas venting and flowing from the mountains. One area, which is off limits to hikers, looked like it was flowing streams of yellow liquid that made cuts into the landscape. Truly unique. On this all day adventure we hiked through shoulder IMG_5857high pine trees that were stunted by harsh weather and we stopped at a river hot spring for lunch. Nothing like PB&J and a hot foot bath. The trail morphed into flatter terrain where railroad ties placed end to end would be the trail. We made it back to the start right at sunset and Andy got some great shots. Not wanting to spend the money to take the ropeway (like a tramway) down we decided to race daylight and take the trail down. It was a long 3 kilometers and it was in the dark. What is one of the 10 essentials that you should always stash in your back when you hike? A flashlight. We did not bring our headlamps, but luckily Andy had his phone and this made for a less difficult, but arduous trip back down.

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The following days we ventured to the Northeast entrance of the national park at the town of Sounkyo. The colors were more vibrant here and the canyon was more drastic. We caught more rain that created soggy shoes, but we hiked to waterfalls IMG_6231and earned a much needed onsen soak or three. We ventured to the multistoried, fancy hotel up the street and paid $5 each for the use of 3 hot spring pools. The first was on the 7th floor and I experienced my first balcony tub that overlooked the resort town below. Then we took the elevator to the 2nd floor and enjoyed another outdoor tub that overlooked a manicured garden, more like a lawn with a couple trees (nature is so much more beautiful!). Last stop was the 1st floor pool that was the hottest and largest. In the women’s bath there were 3 pools each with lessening hotness. The 3rd pool had stone beds that you could lay down on. They weren’t comfortable, but the water felt great.IMG_6572 The men’s side, Andy found out by mistake, had a cold plunge. Back at our youth hostel we ate dinner in a community dining area with other travelers from all over the world including Thailand, China, Japan, U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France and Australia. It was incredible.

IMG_6623Anticipation followed us back to Sapporro where we sprung for a tiny, but nice hotel room and spent time cruising the city before our flight left Japan. The Sapporo Brewery provided us with many tasty samples before we bought a few items, IMG_6675mainly food to take home. In one day we said goodbye to Japan and hello to China. In the process of changing our tickets we settled for a 21 hour layover in Shanghai, China. We lived it up too! Abruptly realizing we weren’t in Japan anymore due to almost getting scammed by the taxi drivers and run over by mopeds (they follow the same rules as bikes…they can go anywhere!) we managed not to get scammed by a taxi driver, figure out the subway system, make it to an acrobatic circus show, eat interesting street food, visit a few sights and take a maglev bullet train that travels 300 km/hr all in 21 hours! China was a contrast to Japan and a place I need to spend more time in to develop a fair opinion of. A 14 hour flight from Shanghai landed us in LAX, where it took another 6 hours of flights and layovers to get back to Denver and jetlagged.

IMG_6698All in all we feel great satisfaction in the traveling that we did in the amazing country of Japan. Getting to know the people, the food, and the customs were experiences that I will carry with me forever. I am intrigued with the vast differences in culture between Japan and my own, but truly heartened by the kindness that we came to appreciate so much in this amazing country. Domo arigato goziamasu to all those who made this trip an incredible journey for us!

Vending Machines

IMG_4452Vending machines in Japan scatter the sidewalks, street corners and niches of hotels, stores and sometimes restaurants. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and uses as well. The most common ones serve a variety of 30+ drinks ranging from sports drinks, to sodas, to coffee and more. Various ones even allowed you to select whether you wanted the drink hot or cold. Once I selected a hot coffee and I could barely hold the metal can that it came out in because it was surprisingly hot. My favorite of this type was the “Boss” brand that used Tommy Lee Jones as their spokesman.

IMG_4111Some of the more unique, but less common machines vended items such as beer, cigarettes and ice cream cones. I really enjoyed the ice cream cones and we frequented the beer machines where we could choose from a varied selection in normal and tall boy sizes.

Exclusive machines we found were used in a variety of ways. One we saw sold disposable cameras at a tourist spot, another sold toilet paper for the public restroom, a few sold fortunes at Buddhist temples, one sold hot cups of noodles, others commonly sold tickets to enter a public bath or onsen, while their cousins were placed at the entrances of restaurants where you would buy a ticket corresponding to the dish you wanted to eat.

Never did we have to shake a snack out or fight a machine to accept our crinkled up dollar bill. Vending machines are distinctively Japanese and we in the US have not even scratched the surface of their true potential.

Clean Those Udders

IMG_5510At Shiozaki Dairy Farm outside of Bifuka, Haokkaido we have truly found rural Japan. There is only a one-car train that runs 5 times a day from the station and barely anyone on it. To get anywhere else you really need to have your own car. The farm itself is about a half hour drive from the small town of Bifuka, it sits on 80 hectares of pasture and supports 30 milking cows, a handful of meat cows, 4 chickens, 2 dogs, 3 cats and a family of 2 adults and 3 kids. Satoshi and Rie are a young couple that started this dairy 10 years ago and have been IMG_5403feeding their cows with grass from their land and collecting the delicious milk. They are both hard workers and are not only hosting Wwoofers for the first time but raising an 8 year old girl who loves to dance, a very energetic 5 year old and boy and a smiling 1½ year old that we call Heehee for short. This is what I expected the countryside to look like before making it to mainland Japan two months ago. The farms are still considerably smaller than those found in the Midwest and most are run by individual families.

IMG_5362During out first few days on the farm we shared duties with 2 WWoofer girls from Thailand. Our main job is helping milk the cows twice a day. The first milking is at 5am and the second at 4pm. Before the cows can enter we give them measured amounts of ‘beet food pellets’ at their stalls, feed a baby calf, clean and get the wiping rags ready for the udders. Once we let the cows in they go to their stalls and chow down like they haven’t been fed in weeks. It’s pretty amazing that most of the time they go to the correct stall. We lock them to a metal post and begin the milking IMG_5370process. We clean each cow’s udders first and then attach a milking machine. While they are milked we prepare the next cow and go on down the line. There are 4 milking machines going at the same time so there’s always something to do. The whole operation runs fairly smoothly, but there are some intricacies that our hosts are used to dealing with like ‘slow milker’ cows, cows that kick the milker off, cows that try and kick us while we’re cleaning them and so on. Satoshi has even performed a few AIs (artificial insemination) the last few days. After the last cow has been milked and most of the others have laid down (I don’t believe cows sleep standing up after this), so we have to get them up, release them from their post and back out to the pasture. We clean the stalls and the towels and get everything ready to go for the next round. In between milkings we help with the kids and chores around the house like laundry or gardening.

IMG_5412Outside of work we are included in many of the family and community activities. We’ve gone hiking with Shatoshi, to ‘cabbage club’ where we helped harvest hundreds of heads of cabbage, made wool yarn at a neighbor’s house, picked berries, went to a bazaar, visited a 1 man cheese factory, helped with the rice harvest in another town and attended a midday BBQ. We really enjoy Japanese BBQ because its lots of grilled veggies like peppers, onions and pumpkin. There’s even grilled noodles which are really good and of course some marinated meat.

IMG_5483Our time here on the farm is coming to a close and so is our time traveling. As some of you might already know, Rachel and I are headed back home. We had plans to travel to Nepal, but the Colorado flooding caused some serious damage at my parents resort and they need our help to get it back in working order. So we were able to change our tickets and will fly home on October 15th. We will leave the farm on the 9th and hope to get in some hiking in a nearby National Park, swig some beer at the original Sapporo brewery and whatever else comes up before making the trek home. Hope to see you all when we get back!

Japanese Bath Time

While in Japan we have been introduced to many different traditions and customs. One big part of life here are the onsens and public baths, community places to get clean, soak and talk with your neighbors. Our friend told us, people in the bath are all equals; there are no clothes to delineate one social class from another, the conversation flows freely. With the creation indoor plumbing people don’t use the public baths as often, but they are still visited. Due to the late coming of the tub and shower in every home they are always separate from the toilet.

IMG_5742At our last two farms we always used the shower and were never invited to use the tub, which seemed to be reserved for family members only. However our dairy farm host only had a true Japanese bath in their house without a shower. A traditional bathtub is shorter and deeper than common tubs back home. You are not able to fully extend your legs and the water will come up over your shoulders. Attached to the tub is a small heater that pulls in cold water from the bottom and outputs hot water in the middle. Sometimes the water can be scalding on top and yet frigid on the bottom, so it’s best to stir the water before getting in.

It is also customary to not get in the tub until you are completely clean. To do this, located next to the tub is a small, wooden stool to sit on and a bucket. You dunk the bucket in to the tub for water and do all of your washing outside the tub. If you are really dirty you might even wash twice. When you are completely clean you can enter the tub and relax. Once you are done, make sure not to drain the water! The tub water is reused by the next person and then the next person until everyone has washed. The water is kept warm by covering the tub in between baths and can also be reheated if necessary.

It was difficult to get used to taking this type of bath, especially the first few days when we had 9 people all using the same bath water. However, now I kind of look forward to taking a bath.