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Monday, February 22, 2010

The Long Journey Home

So it took me 8 years and a long 12 hour ride to finally make it back to Saiki.  Junko, my old co-worker, was picking me up with her three little kiddies. The last time I saw her, she was a beautiful bride, 2004. Now she had 3 little ones. It didn't seem like that much time had passed but she already had 3 kids so obviously, enough time had passed!

I was filled with so many mixed emotions coming back.  Would the town's people, my old co-workers remember me?  The kids, how big would they be?  Some of the smallest children that I had fond memories of and who *possibly* remembered me were about 4-5 years old when I they would be about 13-15....would I see the ex? Would everyone tell me that I got fat?

That was actually my biggest concern.  Japanese people are very conscious of weight and even though we may be a 'healthy' weight in America, we would be considered obese in Japan.  Some of the bigger Japanese bodies would be considered petite in the U.S.  I made a promise to myself that if and when I ever made it back, I would go back the same weight that I left...I had gained close to 25 pounds after I left 8 years ago; doesn't help that I was working in the food business and food quality was always my top concern!  Unfortunately, that was a promise to myself that I couldn't keep and I think I only lost 5 pounds so was still 20 pounds heavier than when I left!

Hokkaido to Honshu

The 61st Annual Yuki Matsuri 雪祭り, Snow Festival took place from February 5-11, 2010. I have always wanted to see the ice and snow sculptures in Hokkaido so this was exciting for me and a perfect opportunity since just to fly to Hokkaido from Tokyo is about $500, one way!

I took the night train up, departing Tokyo around 5:30PM on Thursday night. I took a total of 3 trains to travel the approximately 500 miles up to the northern island. The last train, night train, was the best. I actually got a 'sleeping' area. I call it 'area' because it wasn't a seat nor a bed. It was a rectangular space with little dividers. We were all provided with a blanket and slept in a line. Luckily, I only had one 'neighbor' next to me and no one on my other side. Arrived in Sapporo at 6:30AM and was going to make my way to the hotel. I had used my points to book a 2 night stay at the Renaissance (Marriott chain) Hotel but had no idea where it was in respect to the train station! Did not do much planning and the only thing I made sure of was that it was in Sapporo; oh and that there was a station nearby. Turned out that the hotel offered a free shuttle service but the first transfer did not start until 820AM. So, I chucked my luggage into a locker so that I could walk around.

Four Islands in Fourteen Days...

So where do I begin?  Hello, my name is Regina. Do you remember me? I am actually the writer of this blog and I have been doing a terrible job keeping all of you updated on my travels! Many apologies! But many great stories to make up for it! I am back in Tokyo now so hopefully I can catch all of you up on my travels during my last two weeks of silence and will elaborate in more detail of my trip in separate entries.

So I bought a rail pass in Taiwan at the very last minute, thanks to the help of my friend Jen who called upon her travel agent to produce a rail pass for me within 24 hours!  It came with a $513.00 pricetag (Y46,100 list price with conversion from Yen - New Taiwan Dollar - US Dollar).  What I purchased was a 14 day free-pass to travel around the country on any JR line.  Naturally, I took advantage of the fact that it allowed me to go anywhere and ran with it.  I can proudly say that in two weeks, I went to all four major islands of Japan from North to South: Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku.

I traveled up north to see the Snow Festival which is something that I had wanted to do for years.  Spent 2 nights and 3 days in Sapporo with a few trips to the Hot Springs then took a night train down to Yamanashi-ken 山梨県 Yamanashi Prefecture to pay a quick visit to a good friend who was until recently working there as a professor in Psychology. She just recently landed a new job at a prestigious university - Aoyama Gakuin 青山学院 so she was getting ready to pack up, and say good-bye to the town that she called home for the last five years.  Since Eri had a lot of work to finish, I decided to walk around the town and keep myself busy.  Somehow I found myself at another onsen!

After spending a night in Yamanashi, took a 12 hour train ride down to Kyushu. I really wish they had night trains that went down to Kyushu!  I basically killed the entire day just trying to get down to the southern island, my home for two years.  Eri brought me to the train station early that morning where I took a train and then another train and then another...I took 5 trains that day!  Sakaori - Kofu - ShizuokaOkayama - Kokura - Oita - Saiki.  Okay, make that  6 trains!  I didn't get into Saiki until 12 hours later!

But all the train riding was worth it as I would be returning to the village that I called home for two years (2000-2002).  It had been almost 10 years since I first came here, not knowing a single soul and very resistant (or is the word resentful?) to the fact that I was being sent out to the countryside of Japan.  Little did I know that my two years here would leave a lasting impression that without any hesitation, I call this my home in Japan.  I often joke about returning here one day or buying up land so that I can come back to visit...we'll see if this ever happens.  I stayed in my old hometown of Naokawa which used to be called Naokawa Village but as of 5 years ago, was merged with the greater area known as Saiki City. I still hate calling it Saiki, as if we lost our identity, so you'll never hear me refer to my home as Saiki but still with much pride, Naokawa.

Since my rail pass was only valid for 14 days which I still feel was really only 13 days (started on February 4 and ended on February 17 - isn't that only 13? 4 + 13 = 17), I decided to maximize my pass.  This would require me to take a night train back.  However, since there were no night trains TO Kyushu, there were naturally no night trains FROM Kyushu.  There was however a night train from Shikoku which was the smaller island to the east.  On my way to Hokkaido, a fellow traveler had mentioned that they'd be going down to Shikoku to visit 道後温泉 Dogou Onsen and because I had never been, thought this would be a perfect time to come, on my rail pass...essentially, I had already paid my way there.

So I worked out that I would leave Naokawa on the FIRST train (there are only 3 trains in the day!) and make my way to Saiki and do almost the entire process back up to Tokyo but instead, at midway take a train from Okayama eastward to Shikoku.  I boarded the 6:51AM train in Naokawa and made it to Matsuyama at 3:20PM, over 8 hours of train.  It sucked that I had to say good-bye to everyone at such an early hour but this was the only way to maximize my rail pass and not have to worry about finding another place to sleep that night.

After taking a dip into my final (6th) onsen in 14 (or 13) days, I made my night train back to Tokyo.  Coming into Tokyo, whiteness everywhere! It was snowing in Tokyo!  This was the first time in a few years that Tokyo was getting snowed upon! How lucky I was! And to think that I almost never had a jacket! 

I covered a lot of area on my rail pass and the connections I made were priceless!  If you want to read more of my time in Hokkaido and Naokawa, please read my subsequent entries as I go in depth with what I did and what I ate...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tips on Tokyo

Tokyo, Japan

It's been a while since I last posts while in Tokyo will be infrequent as there's really not much to write for me from this city besides comment on my day.  I've lived in Japan for a total of 3 years; one year as an exchange student almost 13 years ago, and two years working in southern Japan.  It's almost like coming home for me where I know where things are and where to go. I am in a complicated state though when I'm here as I am an outsider that is often times mistaken for a local....well I suppose it depends on who you ask...