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Kyoto and Osaka

I’ve been so busy lately that I forgot to make a post about my trip to Kyoto and Osaka over Spring break! I had an amazing time with friends and I am looking forward to going again some day.

Day 1 –

The day started with a bike ride to the train station. From Maebashi my group and I took the train to Tokyo and caught a bullet train to Kyoto there. I’ve heard that you can see Mt. Fuji from the windows of the train on the way to Kyoto, but I fell asleep. When we arrived at the Kyoto train station (which is really cool by the way) we took a bus the area of hostel. The hostel was pretty nice and close to the river and shopping district.

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Kyoto is an extremely old city filled with lots of historical landmarks, famous temples, and it attracts many tourists year-round. This was only a short trip, so it was impossible to see every thing the area had to offer, but that’s just an excuse to go back over and over and over again.

My first Kyoto temple visit was the well known Kiyomizu Temple. The walk up to the temple was extremely fun. The road is lined with shops, souvenirs, restaurants, even kimono renting places. Many people were dressed in traditional clothes while they were walking around the streets.

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We found this on the way up:

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Then we made it to the temple! It was a beautiful Spring day, and lucky for us one of the cherry trees was blooming right out front.

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I was hoping to hit the beginning of cherry blossom season when I went, but most of the trees bloomed 2 weeks later than usual this year. This was a lucky catch.

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A beautiful pagoda, view from below:

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Even though part of Kiyomizu was under renovation, it was still a good experience. I toured the temple and temple grounds, and saw a beautiful view of the building.

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At the end of the tour, there is a famous waterfall (the temple’s name actually meansclear water) that has wish granting powers. I waited in line to take a drink and make a wish.

This picture can give you an idea of what it looked like:

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After seeing the temple, we explored the streets of Kyoto and came upon a cherry blossom festival (even though there were no cherry blossoms!). Kyoto really is a beautiful, old city.

A temple gate and a street in Gion:

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Usually the hostel/hotel on a trip isn’t worth mentioning in a blog post, but when we returned to our room that night we met our roommates. There were two sisters from the U.K that were in Japan for a few weeks, and a Romanian couple on vacation as well. Everyone was so nice that we talked about Kyoto and our lives for a while before bed. We got to talk some more the next night as well, and even ran into the sisters randomly in Gion the next day. It was a good group to be with in the same room.

Day 2 –

Unfortunately the second day was a bit rainy. We made the best of it by having breakfast at an amazing coffee shop, then heading over to Sanjusangendo. There are absolutely no pictures taken in the building, and it was raining, so I can’t offer much except this link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanj%C5%ABsangen-d%C5%8D

I liked visiting this historic site. Places like this in Japan make me realize how little I really know about the history/culture of this country and how much more I need to learn. Where are my old textbooks when I need them?

The rest of the day was spent shopping in a famous food shopping district called Nishiki. It had lots of fresh foods out, including things I had never seen before. I would totally shop there if I lived in Kyoto. Lucky for us most of it was covered so we didn’t get rained on.

After a hard day of shopping, we treated ourselves to the best fried chicken and ramen in the city. Maybe even in Japan. Seriously, it was that good. The place was even featured in a travel book about Japan. I’m lucky the store doesn’t have a branch in Maebashi.

Day 3 –

Day 3 was Osaka day! Osaka is only a 40 minute train ride away from Kyoto. Osaka was such a cool city, with a totally different feel to it from Kyoto or Tokyo. It was younger, hipper, just more urban feeling and fun. Osaka is famous for takoyaki and okonomiyaki, so of course, I ate both while I was there. đŸ™‚ At the end of the day of sightseeing my group went to karaoke and had a ton of fun!

A busy street in Osaka:

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Day 4 –

Day 4 was the last day of our trip. We took the train back to Kyoto to see the Nijo Castle.

This is my first castle visit in Japan, and I can’t really imagine any other place topping it. It was beautiful inside and out, and full of great information in English. Since this was once the dwelling of an emperor, the floors are rigged with a mechanism that makes it impossible for intruders to enter unnoticed. The floorboards literally sang as you walked on them. I loved it!

The outside wall around the castle:

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The entrance:

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A close up:

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Unfortunately, pictures weren’t allowed indoors. Every room had beautiful woodwork and wall murals painted by famous artists.

After touring the indoors, there was a large garden outside to tour as well. I’m sure it would have been even prettier later in the spring.

Me:

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To finish up Day 4, we gave Kiyomizu Temple one last hurrah. On Day 1 we had just missed being able to take a walk into a tunnel in complete darkness, and wanted to go back and do it. I had to descend into pitch black darkness with only a hand rail to guide me through tunnel. As you walk through, you are supposed to discover “your own light” inside yourself to guide you. It was a little scary at first because it’s so dark your eyes don’t adjust to anything and you never see where you are walking. The tunnel wasn’t very long though, so not a bad experience.

A great picture of the temple on Day 4, courtesy of Clarissa:

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That finishes my Kyoto and Osaka trip of 2012. There is still much more that I haven’t seen yet, so I can’t wait to go back!

-Kristen

The Maebashi Rose Garden

A few weeks ago the park near my house had its Rose Garden Festival. The roses were all in bloom and the park was packed with people enjoying the warm weather and pretty flowers.

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It’s really a beautiful park, and it’s only about 15 minutes away from my house. Also, it’s really close to the best hamburger shop in the whole city.

The roses had so many varieties, colors, countries of origin, and some even had interesting names.

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My favorite of the day:

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It’s so unique and it’s my favorite picture.

The park itself had some great features. I loved the rose tunnel.

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I also loved the cute little gazebos!

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It was very hot that day, so after seeing all the roses my group and I had some ice cream to cool off. I had rose ice cream, which was very unusual. It was like eating a delicious scented candle.

The final thing I want to share before I go is the rare “blue” rose.

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Is it really blue? You be the judge.

-Kristen

Some more back logging for you guys. In April I went to the world’s largest fish streamer display. Fish streamers are usually put up in honor of Children’s Day, May 5th, especially at homes with boys. This was the perfect time to go because the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The cherry blossom trees in combination with the fish streamers over the river made for a beautiful day.

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The point of the trip was to have a hanami party, which is like a flower watching picnic. You sit under the cherry trees, drink, eat, and be merry. Everyone brought different dishes to share and alcohol to enjoy.

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The park was packed with people, but I didn’t get any pictures of the picnicers or the general atmosphere there. It was very fun. There were lots of kids there playing with their families. Many people brought their pets (I got to pet a rabbit!), and for some reason there was a group of cosplayers dressed up, dancing and singing. Quite the day.

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After lots of delicious food and a couple cans of umeshu, I fell asleep on the blanket and got a sunburn. I can’t wait to go back next year!

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It’s been quite a while since I’ve made a post. This will be the first in a series of my recent travels.

In February I went to the Snow Festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

You’re probably wondering what a snow festival is. Think tons and tons of snow shipped in from all over Hokkaido, compressed into huge blocks, and then carved into intricate designs and put on display for everyone to see. Add tons of food and people from all over the world, and you get a snow festival. There were even ice sculptures at the snow festival too.

I only got to go for 3 days, but that was pretty much all I needed.

The festival didn’t officially start until Monday, so Saturday and Sunday were a chance to explore the sights of Sapporo.

The first day was spent in a neighboring city called Otaru where I went to see the canal snow light path. It was snowing and cold, but very beautiful.

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That day I got to eat some delicious ramen. Hokkaido is famous for delicious miso ramen and crab.

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The second day was a chance to see Sapporo’s famous chocolate factory. At the beginning of the trip I thought the chocolate factory would be a boring, run of the mill factory. Instead, it was like walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The factory owners/operators really tried to make the trip magical by filling the place with a ton of weird stuff, and of course some views into the factory and an explanation of how they make their signature product.

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I ate some more delicious ramen that day. This is called miso butter corn ramen. There is a lot of butter and corn in it!

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Sunday night was test night for the Snow Festival light up shows. I got some of my best pictures of the huge sculptures.

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An ice sculpture that has real crabs and fish in it.

Finally the day of the Snow Festival came. I saw all of the sculptures in the day time, some performances and shows, and stuffed myself with food from Malaysia, China, Russia, and Japan, of course. I wish I had taken some pictures of my food for you all, but it was gone quickly after I bought it.

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After a great weekend in Sapporo, it was time to go home. I want to go back soon to eat more fantastic food and see more of beautiful Hokkaido.

At the airport we ran into a special friend. Melon bear!

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I taught my kids the sentence: Kristen looks like food for melon bear. They weren’t as amused as I thought they would be.

Now for your feedback – what was your favorite sculpture?

-Kristen

Well it’s been a crazy year since I came to Japan. Thanks to all my friends here and abroad and my family who helped me through the heartbreak that came in December. I want to start posting pictures and stories about my travels since my last post, but today I thought I would put up a light post about my English boards at school. I didn’t have a way to print anything on a computer until March, so hopefully you can see the quality improvement as time goes on.

August: My first board about Summer!

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September:

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October:

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November/December:

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February:

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March:

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Right now I’m trying a new approach of tying my English board into the class material for each grade, so maybe in a few more weeks I can post a picture of my final product.

Hope you enjoyed! Thanks for reading.

Kristen

Japanese Cuisine

I don’t feel like I’ve made any of my state side friends super jealous of me lately, so I’m going to rectify that. Feast your eyes on this:

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Katsu kare

a.k.a Japanese curry, rice, and fried pork cutlet. One of my top favs!

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Tenpura soba

Hot soba noodles in sauce with tenpura vegetables and fish.

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Okonomiyaki

A fried pancake mixed with all sorts of ingredients.

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Coolish

Soft serve ice cream in a squeeze container. Don’t knock it till you try it.

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Homemade Gyudon

Beef and onions on a bed of rice. Since this picture I’ve gotten better at making it!

When it comes to food, this isn’t even the beginning, believe me. Thanks for reading, and keep a look out for my next post: Japan – The Taste of Fall

-Kristen

Sado Island

Please forgive how late this post is, about a month late exactly.

Back in September I took a weekend camping trip up to Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture with two friends. Sado Island is famous for many things,  like wooden boats, the red-crested ibis, noh theaters, beautiful beaches, sea food, and the Sado Gold Mine. The island is the largest isolated island in Japan. It has beautiful rock formations and lots of hiking on the mountainous terrain.

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We left Takasaki Station early morning Friday by bullet train. It was very exciting for me, having never ridden a bullet train before. Watching our train come in was very cool and we took lots of pictures like the tourists we are.

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After the bullet train ride we arrived on the coast of Japan in time to catch the ferry to the island. The ferry we took was a car and passenger ferry, so it was huge! We bought our tickets and boarded the ferry.

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Within minutes we were all motion sick. It was awful. The only thing that helped was laying down and taking a nap, or sitting outside watching the waves. It was a two hour boat ride.

Thankfully, we finally made it to port on Sado Island! We landed at Ryotsu Port. We disembarked with all of the other passengers and had a look around. We wanted to rent a car, but all of the car rental places were booked up! So instead we bought unlimited use bus tickets for 2 days, which cost about $20 and probably paid for themselves twice. We ate a snack in Ryotsu, then went exploring. We found a farmer’s market and bought some apples and bananas for breakfast the next day. We also loaded up on snacks in case the campground didn’t have food nearby. Then we hopped on a bus to our campsite in Tassha.

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When we first got to the campsite, we were a little disappointed and confused. Where were the beautiful beaches? We asked a gift shop attendant and found out that we were in the right place. It was a gloomy day, and threatening to rain. We were a bit worried about the fact that it might thunderstorm, and we had no running water/bathrooms after 8pm. We decided to stick out anyway and put up the tent. We took a walk on the shoreline and then hiked up the road to explore. There wasn’t much around us. Sleeping in the tent that night was a little scary (I swear I heard a cat outside the tent!) but we made it through.  In the morning, the sun was out and we got to see the beautiful beach that was advertised. The gift shop opened at 8 am and we finally got to use the bathroom! We pulled down the tent and caught the next bus to our second destination: The Sado Gold Mine.

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Back in the day, the Tokugawa Shogunate was funded by the gold from the Sado Gold Mine. Now the mine is shut down, but it provides a fun tour into history for people. You can walk through and see animated robots doing the everyday work that real mine workers used to do. They even had a lot of signs in English! We paid 800 yen each to tour half of the mine. Then, we walked through a museum with lots of information and old artifacts from the mine. Then of course the exit took you to a gift shop! I’m a sucker for souvenirs.

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Outside the gift shop we saw a place selling dango, a specialty of Niigata prefecture. We bought sakura dango and enjoyed them together.

Next up on the trip, the port town of Ogi. We took a nice long bus ride down the island to our last stop. When we got off, we weren’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into. We didn’t know where we were, had no transportation (besides the next bus) and we had our heavy bags to carry everywhere. Thankfully the weather was nice, actually it was a bit hot for backpacking that day. We had intended to camp again, but the campgrounds were mostly closed for the season. We got over our initial nervousness to go look around and we found the tourist information building and got the phone number for the local hostel. Once we made a reservation, we hiked up to it on foot with all of our bags (it was quite a climb!) and paid about 3600 each for a night in a nice little youth hostel that seemed to be only run by an old lady. Once we dropped off our bags, we hiked back down to explore the town and soon realized that this place was tiny. There was no way we could have gotten lost! It was such a small town, the kind where you can walk through the downtown area and not even realize it… But anyway we found dinner at a nice little restaurant, took pictures of the ocean, and bought souvenirs. We were lucky enough to see one of the famous wooden tub boats being rowed (picture at top of the post). It was a peaceful night. As it was getting dark, we went back up the road to our hostel and spent the rest of the night enjoying the electricity and cell phone reception.

Then Sunday came too fast. It was time to leave. We got to spend a little bit more time in the little town before our ferry left. We left from a different port than we came in, because it would have cost a lot of money to take a bus back to the main port now that our passes were expired. This ferry got us to a fairly big train station on the main island of Japan, so it all worked out. Our second ferry also seemed like a much smoother ride, and it didn’t take as long to get back either. We weren’t too motion sick to go outside and enjoy the view, and we even got to feed some seagulls! That was fun.

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Goodbye Sado!

It took about 7 hours, 1 ferry, 1 bus, 3 trains, and 1 bicycle ride to get back home in Maebashi. But my weekend in Sado Island was a great one! I would recommend a trip to Sado Island during the summer season, when more things are open, and I would also suggest renting a car too. But either way it’s a fun trip.

I almost forgot to add a certain funny story. While Laura and I were on the bullet train back to Takasaki station, we were sitting next to a nice looking old lady. She had a heavy carry on bag with her, so I offered to put it up for her. Then we talked the rest of the train ride! She didn’t speak much English, but she had been all over the world and told us some cool stories about her travels in Europe (from what we could understand…). Then she gave us some souvenirs from her latest trip! It was too kind. Laura and I conspired to gift her back. I mentioned earlier that I was a sucker for souvenirs, and I had bought some at the Sado Gold mine. I pulled out a key chain, hid it in my hand, then right when we got to our stop, we sneak attack gifted her and ran away. It was great!

-Kristen

Visit Sado

School Life

Well, school started on August 29th and since then I’ve inevitably fallen into the work, eat, sleep, repeat pattern that many of you are familiar with. There’s not a lot of time to do fun exciting things like climb Mt. Fuji anymore. But, I guess my school life is exciting enough by itself. Here’s a typical day for me:

After the usual morning stuff, I run out the door and jump on my bike. It’s about 10-20 minutes to my school depending where I’m going on a particular day. After I get to school, I get ready for my classes by printing worksheets, cutting/drawing materials, and finalizing lesson plans at the last minute. At my junior high, I mostly go to class, read from the textbook, and help with the communication activites by bringing a game/worksheet that involves that day’s grammar point. At the elementary schools, I’m responsible for the entire lesson. I usually have 4 classes a day, sometimes 5, which always leaves my throat dry from yelling things like “please listen!” “sit down!” and “stand up!”

And then there’s lunch time! Lunch is always interesting. Instead of the students going to a cafeteria, the students bring the food to each classroom and the kids turn their classroom into a mini cafeteria. Eight to ten people serve the food to the classmates, all of the desks are moved, and then we eat! Usually there is a pickled salad, rice, soup, and something to go with it, like meat, or bread, or both. I never look at the menu so I’m always surprised! I have to eat with chopsticks, which is easy with certain things and difficult with others. Also, the kids are encouraged to communicate with me the entire time. Sometimes I don’t get to eat much because I’m answering questions the whole lunch time. Other times (esp. at the junior high) the kids pretend I don’t exist so they don’t have to talk to me in English.

When the kids get done eating something amazing happens. Everyone in the school works together to clean! The floors are swept and scrubbed, chalkboards erased and washed, and the kids are doing it! I don’t think American schools realize they have an army of cleaning machines inside the classrooms. Unfortunately they’re not very thorough, and there are parts of the school that probably never get cleaned. Oh well.

After lunch I usually have 1 more class and then I’m finished. In my free time I either make lesson plans, or make more materials, or study Japanese, or sometimes I write letters. On my elementary days I stay after school to talk to the teachers about next week’s lesson plan so they know what is going on.

The best parts of my days are when I get to talk to the students or play with them or see them acting silly. The elementary kids are absolutely adorable and some of the junior high kids still have a little spunk in them leftover from elementary.

Then I go home. Thanks for reading!

-Kristen

Sunrise on Mt. Fuji

There’s a saying in Japan that goes like this: A wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once, a fool climbs Mt. Fuji twice.

So far I am a wise (wo)man!

After work on Friday, August 19 I hopped on my bike and rode over to the train station to meet with the other 20 people climbing Mt. Fuji that night. I brought my various pieces of gear with me: A complete snow suit, a sweater, hiking boots, a head lamp, 2 litres of water, a rain jacket, my DSLR camera, hat, gloves, and a ton of trail mix. After meeting all of my lovely hiking companions, we got in the cars and started driving to Yamanashi Prefecture, the home of Japan’s tallest mountain.

The car ride was unenventful until we finally made it to the mountain. Imagine this: A dark, drizzly night, wet pavement, and winding roads going up a mountain. Finally we made it to our starting point, the 5th Station. There are nine total stations, and then the summit.

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This picture was taken the next day.

At the 5th Station most of us bought souvenir wooden walking sticks. The walking sticks not only help you up the mountain, but you are also able to get stamps burned into them at each station! I like the idea a lot and got a walking stick for about 1300 yen ($13). The 5th Station stamp looked like this:

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Our plan was to start that night around 11:30 and climb until the sunrise at 5:00 am. At first the hike was not bad, mainly a lot of gravel, big steps, and some trees on the side. We reached the 6th station in a short amount of time.  Unfortunately, the 6th Station was quite small and was not giving out stamps. Then we started to ascend to the 7th Station. The climb got steeper, and the steps seemed endless. My new friend Laura and I named ourselves “Team Slow” and made the trip up with plenty of stops to rest and drink water. Remember, we were thousands of meters above sea level and the air was a lot thinner than we were used to! Thankfully, we did not feel the effects of altitude sickness at the early stages of climbing, or we would have had to go back down.

At the 7th station I got my next stamp:

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So at this point the climb had mostly been peaches and cream, and I thought the rest of the way would be quite similar, just lots of gravel and steps. But I was wrong, so so so wrong. After the 7th Station the path was full of large rocks, going straight up into the sky. I can’t really describe what is was like to look up the mountain and watch the head lamps of other climbers navigating among the rocks for what seemed like miles and miles. We had to use our hands, walking sticks, chain ropes, and poles to drag ourselves up the rest of the way to the 8th Station. The worst part was when we saw a station in the distance, worked really hard to get to it, and then realized that it was just a bathroom stop with a lot of lights. We took a lot of breaks, sipping our water, eating fruit, nuts, and M&Ms,  and huddled in our jackets for warmth. It was also raining, so the rocks were slippery, the sky was dark (though we did get a glance of the moon and some stars toward the top), and the wind picked up very strongly. There were a couple times when I would look up the trail of rocks and hours of climbing and thought about just staying put until the morning. My motivating factor was the promise of the beauty of the sunrise on top of Mt. Fuji, and also the fact that going down the rocks would be just as awful as going up them.

So I kept moving, holding onto Laura’s hand so we could pull each other up the rocks, all the while giving and receiving courage from other climbers. We heard things like “Ganbarou!” “Fight!” and of course we said “Sumimasen!” because we had a tendency to hold up the other climbers…

Then a miracle happened. We made it to the 8th Station at about sunrise. The view was not much to look at really, but for a couple of weary climbers the lightening of the sky meant that the climb was almost over. The goal was within reach. And, we stayed up all night to climb this *&%^%* mountain!

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I think this is one of the better sunrise photos I got from the 8th Station.

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Me!

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My hiking partner Laura. What a work out!

At this point we could have continued to the summit, another 2 or so hours of hiking, but the air was getting to me and I didn’t feel like going up any further. Also, the people at the 8th station were not doling out the stamps! I was not happy. I waited for a while to get my stamp, but the wind was very cold and strong, and I was eager to get back down the mountain so I could sleep.

Ok, so I climb a mountain, got to 3100 meters, the hard part is over right? No! Because what must go up, must come down.

The side of the mountain kind of looked like this:

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See all of those little red rocks? The path way down the mountain zig-zagged, back and forth, back and forth, all on those little red rocks. The way was a bit treacherous, because losing your footing was easy. I fell about 4 times, and scraped up my leg a little, but I didn’t feel bad, because everybody else around me was falling down as well. The way down seemed to last forever, but there were stops to rest and use the restroom thankfully. I snoozed a bit here and there, and rested as much as I needed. I soon learned that if I wasn’t walking or sitting, my legs would shake with the effort to stand up. I definitely was feeling the wear and tear of the mountain. After about 3 or so hours of hiking downhill, I made it back to the 5th station to meet the rest of the group.

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Some very tired but happy hikers! Unfortunately not everyone was there for this picture.

So even after everything I went through, I might have to become a fool and climb it a second time! My goal is to make it to the top, take some beautiful pictures, and get every. single. stamp. Fight!

Until next year, Mt. Fuji.

Thanks for reading! Leave some feedback, would you climb Mt. Fuji?

Sorry for the late post. This one is way overdue!

So about two weeks ago all of the new ALTs in Gunma Prefecture converged on the Kencho Building for two days to learn all they could about what it was to be an Assistant Language Teacher.

Day One, we heard presentations about our contract, insurance, and other important things. But most interestingly, we were vistited by Gunma-chan, the mascot of Gunma!

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Gunma-chan is a pony by the way. He was so cute! Lol.

Then day two we heard some more presentations, like what working in a Junior High School will be like, communicating with our Japanese Teacher of English, and we even practiced games that we can play with the kids! Then we split up into groups to practice Japanese. I went to the Intermediate group and we learned about different strategies to study. Then the whole room played rock, paper, scissors (janken) until I was the supreme ultimate winner! I got a huge manga called “Nana” that probably some of you have heard of, read, or even seen the movie of. I can’t wait to read it! Good Japanese practice.

Then we had culture workshops. I chose to go to Koto, Karate, and Shodo. This was probably the best part of the orientation!

Koto was so amazing. The front part of the room filled up with koto players and they played 3 songs for us. So beautiful!

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Then, the players taught us how to play a simple song, and the ALTs put on a concert!

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I played in the concert. It was fun, and I wouldn’t mind trying it again.

Next, I went to the karate section. Let me tell you, the karate sensei was amazing.

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Then, I went to Shodo, which is calligraphy. I got to draw my name in katakana with a brush and ink. Fun!

Finally, the orientation had to end. But I met lots of great people, went to karaoke, and learned a lot about teaching and living in Japan. A good two days!

Next: Sunrise on Mt. Fuji

Thanks for reading!