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Category: Travel

Karuizawa Dash

It’s been a while.

Since I had a vacation, I mean.

I had grand plans a couple of weeks ago to take an international trip somewhere. I had arranged for some time off of work, had been looking into flights, and had been perusing accommodations for a few days of much-needed relaxation. I was serious. “I’m really going to do it,” I would say to myself, promising that yes, indeed, I would actually give myself some honest enjoyment, even for just a little while.

Of course, as luck would have it, as soon as my body sensed upcoming relief from my responsibilities, my immune system decided that it too would take some time off from defending me from all the plagues I had encountered over the year. On my last day of work before my intended vacation, I lost my voice quite suddenly. Two days later I developed a terrific bout of congestion. Shortly after that came an extraordinarily irritating cough (and thus, an inability to sleep well).

Vacation plans off.

I, however, having still arranged time off, was bound and determined to do SOMETHING for myself. If not an international trip, then what? I’d wanted to get outside Tokyo. I’d wanted the sensation of really traveling; of going somewhere new and doing something out of the ordinary (for me, anyway). I’d wanted to put myself in an environment where I knew close to nothing; where I’d get to be all nooby and touristy again. If I couldn’t do something international, then I was going to take the bullet train somewhere, GOD DAMNIT.

Enter Karuizawa. Admittedly, Karuizawa only fulfills a few of those highly ambitious vacation requirements I listed in that last paragraph, but it was worth a shot.

Karuizawa is a small resort town located in Nagano prefecture. It’s about a 90 minute shinkansen trip from Tokyo, and it has a reputation for being a bit swanky. I’d heard nothing but pleasant things about the place, and I thought it might be good to finally check it out.

So, I did. Sniffles and cough and face mask and all. I picked out a nice looking place (thanks, credit card miles) and booked a hotel room two days before I left. The morning of my departure, I threw a few things into an overnight bag and headed out.

When I arrived at Karuizawa station at around 3:15, it was…brisk. I couldn’t smell anything because my nasal passages were out of commission, but I just knew that the air was probably great and I was MISSING IT. I walked to my hotel, about 10 minutes from the north side of the station, marveling (as I always do when I leave The Big T) at how much SPACE there is in the world.

I checked in, paid a whopping 150 yen fee to use the onsen, went to my room, and excitedly opened the curtains to reveal a patio area that looked out onto a courtyard full of trees in varying shades of beautiful autumn colors.

I took a little time to review my very tentative itinerary for my time there (I did actually have some semblance of a game plan, believe it or not). The first order of business, of course, was food. The hotel had a very nice dinner buffet, but I was more interested in exploring.

Karuizawa has lots of restaurants that are kinda Westerny-fluffy fluffy. I wasn’t really into that; I wanted to eat something local-ish…something I might not otherwise be able to find back at home. I also wanted to eat something extraordinarily unhealthy.

Because vacation.

There was only one answer, and it was ramen. I found a place via Tabelog. I set out from my hotel and took a stroll through the quickly darkening area north of the station, poking around into a few of the shops as I headed toward my dinner spot.

north side karuizawa station nagano japan

I found a place doing desserts and cheeses and beers within about a five minute walk of my hotel. Excellent. The place had a lot of delicious-looking cheese, and I resolved to pick some up before leaving town. I learned there are also a couple of breweries making beer in the area. One, Karuizawa Kogen, is produced by Yoho Brewing, a larger brewery, which is a subsidiary of a resort company. The other is Karuizawa Asama Kogen.  

My ramen shop was south of the station. I passed through the station building itself and emerged on the south side. When I did, I had a few moments of joy followed quickly by a moment of “meh.”

You see, in that moment, I realized that the south side of Karuizawa station is a shopper-friendly sort of place. I am not the type of person who thinks to shop when she travels. In general, I typically hate buying anything that is not consumable, especially when traveling, because it means I have to carry that shit around with me.

No thanks.

When I emerged on the south side of the station, then, my initial moment of joy was caused by the shinyshiny Christmas lights I saw set up over a huge, open lawn. This initial joy was replaced by my “meh” feeling when I saw that the lawn was actually just a giant open space in the middle of an enormous outlet mall. That’s right. Stretched out before me in the midst of all the brisk mountain air and lovely autumn colors were Ralph Lauren and adidas and Coach. But my ramen was in there somewhere, so on I went, accidentally taking the longest possible route to my destination.

christmas lights illumination karuizawa outlet mall nagano japan

It was your typical vending machine-operated ramen shop. It’s advertised as a place that uses local ingredients, and it had good reviews online. It was suspiciously chain shoppy, but by this time, I was hungry, and I was happy to get warm and enjoy something delicious with a beer. I chose not to question its authenticity, submitting myself to the simple pleasure of a deeply unhealthy and deeply satisfying bowl of pork and noodles.

pork ramen and beer karuizawa nagano japan

Thoroughly underwhelmed with the shopping surroundings, after dinner I headed back to my hotel (stopping at aforementioned cheesebeershop for tiramisu and a couple of local beers) for some quality onsen time. Glorious. But alas, my traveling and congestion and ramen and bath had worn me out. I was fighting to stay awake at around 9 PM. Dessert and a beer, then bed it was.

autumn colors leaves trees karuizawa night nagano japan

When I woke in the morning, I enjoyed a cup of green tea on my terrace, headed to the hotel buffet for breakfast, and solidified my game plan for the day. I am well-accustomed to walking EVERYWHERE, so I plotted a route I felt I could manage before heading back to Tokyo that afternoon, and set out (leaving my bag with the hotel reception desk).

I started off at the Karuizawa New Art Museum. It has a free ground level exhibit (rotating) and also has a paid exhibit on the second floor (1000 yen entry). I opted for the full experience; the artwork on feature in the paid exhibition at the time was surrealist. 

Following the art museum, I took another 10 minute walk to nearby Kumoba Pond, which had been described as a good sightseeing spot. When I arrived, I was greeted with some nice trees and…yes, a pond. I spent only a few minutes here before deciding to try for my next location, a historic church, about a 20 minute walk away.

autumn colors trees karuizawa nagano japan

The forest walks were the best part of this experience. Beautiful golden leaves had fallen everywhere, creating a blanket of autumn colors over everything. There was open space and there were mountain roads; I found myself oddly reminded of Oregon. The houses in this part of Karuizawa are huge. People with money build summer homes here and hide from Tokyo’s muggy-sweaty season in comparatively cool Nagano. It was fascinating to see these massive dwellings amidst the beautiful trees; I found myself thinking, “wow, this is really something you don’t see at home, is it?”

Perspective is kinda funny.

I arrived at the church indicated on my sightseeing map (St. Paul’s Catholic Church). Hilariously, directly opposite the church is ANOTHER shopping center (very creatively named Church Street). The sign in front of the church noted that it was for serious churchgoers only (and presumably not a photoshoot location), so I dusted off my Catholicness and went inside, sitting down in the warmth and quiet for a few minutes, alone with my thoughts.

A quick look into the history of Karuizawa shows that the place was popularized by a Canadian missionary in the late 1800s. Many of the sightseeing locations in the area are church/wedding-related, so perhaps this is the reason why. This particular location was small. I sat on a pew, getting warm for a few minutes, and tried to think back to the last time I had voluntarily entered a church.

This stop on my itinerary signaled the end of my morning; it was time for lunch. A quick search pulled up a list of restaurants all concentrated in one area on the opposite side of the intriguing Church Street, so off I went.

There I found Karuizawa Ginza, an old-timey shopping area with lots of local goods, antiques, and some food from the area. My place for lunch was a restaurant that was making a very curious dish; polenta karaage. Not bad.

karuizawa ginza shopping street nagano japan

polenta karaage karuizawa nagano japan

Unfortunately, at this point, it had gotten quite cold and had also started to rain, which was not meshing well with my already less-than-optimal body condition. I, however, not wanting to conclude my trip to Karuizawa without getting at least ONE more spot in, high tailed it up the hill at the end of the shopping street to get a look at one more church (Shaw Chapel) before making my way back down to my hotel. By then, it was raining properly. I was ready to be done. There were a few other things I had hoped to be able to see, but given the weather, I made the executive decision to throw in the towel. Just then, as if on cue, my phone started notifying me that work indeed still existed.

Alas. Me time over.

By the time I got back to my hotel, the rain had really started to come down, and I was feeling pretty low. A taxi took me to the station, where I spaced out for a bit before picking up some souvenir snacks for friends (as well as a few souvenir beers for yours truly). I got on my train and headed home, glad that if nothing else, I had at least spent 23 hours doing something solely for myself.

My takeaway from Karuizawa is that it is a lovely spot, particularly if you are the shoppy-shoppy-travel type. I am not, but was perfectly happy with my experience because I got what I wanted out of it: a shinkansen ride, some good food, an onsen, to see something beautiful, to see something new, and to go to a place I had never been. The trip, in some ways, did what it needed to do. Am I gonna go back? Eh, maybe. It’s not high on my list, but if I’m in need of a little mountain getaway, sure. Thinking about it now, though, I suppose I have to go back at some point.

I totally forgot to buy cheese.

Season Three

Life never ceases to be boring, if you make efforts to keep yourself interested. At least, that’s how I feel after the last three months.

I mentioned near the beginning of the year that I’d be leaving my job with American Language School in West Tokyo to move on to other things. That all went very smoothly. The woman who replaced me is a lovely, lovely human who I hope is enjoying herself in her new position. I haven’t received any desperate phone calls from the office asking if I can come in to help, so I’m assuming things are going great! Saying goodbye to some of my students was emotional. Saying goodbye to some of my other students was, honestly, a relief. Thankfully, the ones I had the strongest connections with I’ve been able to keep in touch with. I’m still on good terms with management at the school, too.

While I had written on this blog a few times about my feelings regarding my teaching job, there were a number of factors that went into my decision not to renew my contract. One of the biggest factors was a family plan that would take up most of the month of June and the first few days of July. If you followed along on YouTube at all, you’ve likely already seen some video footage.

My family went on a month long trip to Europe. We explored Italy and Croatia, and got to meet distant relatives for the first time. My father competed in a worldwide swimming competition (and got 10th place in the world for his age group!). We rented a sailboat and island hopped around the Adriatic, stopping in the evenings at beautiful harbors to eat delicious food and enjoy the summer. It was a whirlwind trip and an incredible series of experiences. I’m still in the process of completing videos of our fun.

Milna, Croatia, on the island of Brac. The first place our sailboat stopped. Absolutely gorgeous!
I arrived back in Tokyo at the beginning of July to a mailbox full of junk and bills. Ah, reality.

To finance my trip and my anticipated period of unemployment that would inevitably follow, I sold my car (in the US) in spring with the help of my family. I had some cash stocked up to help make the transition to a new job easier, but knew I needed to find a new position by the end of July. As much as I wanted to get going and start working right away after arriving home from my long vacation, jet lag and and a brief sickness got the best of me. I suppose it was just my body’s way of reminding me that having a few days of staycation following a vacation are very important.

Over the last 6 months, things have really picked up on the activity front for me here, though I didn’t blog about it. For about a 2 month period in spring, I worked with a Tokyo based law firm helping with some stateside liaising and document checks. My agreement with them ended when I left for Europe, but through their connections, they (totally on their own) hooked me up with a university job one day a week. I met my former employer and their university connection for dinner and drinks (AKA “an interview”) one evening. This was followed about two weeks later by an interview with the managerial staff of the department interested in hiring me at the university. It all went well, and I secured a once-weekly position doing editing/proofreading work. It’s great, but one day a week doesn’t pay the bills.

Japan’s payment system operates a little differently than the US system. Paychecks are delayed by a month. For example, if you begin work on the first of April and work full time through that month, you are not paid for that month of work until the end of the following month (May). Keeping this in mind (along with my slowly draining bank account), I knew I had to find something by the end of July, or I’d be in deep trouble.

I got lucky. I sent one resume and one email to a listing I saw online. The listing was for a data entry job, and it was close to home. The listing used words like “flexible” and “part time”. I figured it couldn’t hurt to chat with them and see what they needed. If we could come to an agreement, it would be great. I figured I still had other options, if absolutely necessary.

I went in for an interview and had a great time. To make an increasingly long story slightly shorter: they hired me. 4 days a week. 9 hour days. And it’s definitely not data entry.

So, what’s my primary job now? I work for a beer importer! The company imports beer from all around the world. Delicious, delicious beer. I’m split between two divisions of the company. One of my jobs is to work with the company’s owner/COO to manage branding and planning activities. This so far has involved preparing presentations for him, monitoring promotional activities, going to events, and checking out sales data to start forming marketing plans. I am thoroughly enjoying myself and learning a lot in a very short period of time.

A summer rooftop pool party I went to last weekend. Free of charge, with a guest. Because my boss asked me if I could make it. Life is sooo hard. Just terrible.
The other portion of my job deals with assisting in the development of the company’s new e-commerce project. Readers who are in Japan: think of it as Rakuten, but for craft beer. It is awesome and I can’t wait for it to go live so we can all take advantage of it. The site is both a collection of media and resources as well as a beer shopping site. However, you won’t be finding Asahi, Sapporo, Suntory, or Kirin available for purchase. Instead, you’ll be choosing from beers produced by Japan’s 200+ local brewers. We’re very, very excited about it. It’s going to be ready for users soon. Really soon. Like, make sure you know where your wallets are, residents of Japan. I can’t wait.

In addition to these jobs (which have me working Monday-Friday, 9-6 or later), I’ve also been doing more and more media-related work this year. Some readers may be familiar with the JapanesePod101 series, or other language study services provided by the same company. I’m now working for them on a very part time basis to produce video lessons and to provide voice support for audio lessons.

The video lessons I’m doing are to teach more natural English phrases to people who have already been studying for some time. There are a few free sample versions available for viewing on their official YouTube channel, but the full package is a subscription service. My role in all of it is pretty small; they set a time for me to come in to film a few lessons at a time (from 7 AM, ARGH). I show up and try to stay awake and energized. They put a script in front of me, I read it, they edit it a few days later, and then give it to people. Feedback has been good. They tell me I’m their only host that nobody has written bad comments about. Huzzah! I’m contracted to do 25 lessons with them, and we’re at about the halfway mark.

The voice recording work I’m doing for the same company is fairly easy; I sit in their teeny little studio and read vocabulary words into a large microphone. Occasionally I also work with a native speaker of another language to be the English support for individuals learning something else. For example, most recently I worked with a native speaker of Arabic. My voice is the one saying things like “When you want to express that you like a food, try saying…” For the most part, it’s easy work.

I also have an online editing job. I do it when I can. Pretty self explanatory.

Lastly, and most recently, I have one new media project on the horizon working with NHK. I met with the producers of a show a couple weeks ago, and things are now in progress for…something! I don’t want to say too much here and risk counting my chickens before they’ve hatched. News will be announced when news is available.

So! That’s how season 3 of ArishaInTokyo starts! I realized today that I’d forgotten completely my 3 year Japan Birthday. July 19th marked the date! My, how much has changed. I’ve been reading through a lot of my old posts in the last few days and have wanted to write something, but wasn’t sure where to start. I guess this is it!

I hope that everyone has had an amazing summer thus far. Mine has been fantastic. I’m very, very excited about the latest turns my life has taken, and I’m excited to be sharing it with all of you. While I’m afraid I won’t be writing much about my experiences with students, the last few weeks have shown me that my new positions are going to be anything but boring. I’m busy, but not in a way that makes me feel frustrated. It seems as though these changes have been for the good!

I have a lot to get caught up on, blog wise. There are draft posts sitting on my wordpress account just waiting to be finished off, plenty of pictures to share, and more videos to be made. My hiatus was a good one. It was absolutely necessary! I’m looking forward to making the next year the best year yet.

Thanks for reading, as always! Have a wonderful week!

Atsui

Tokyo summers are hot. I learned that 3 seconds after stepping off the plane at Narita airport one year ago in the middle of July. I’m re-living that experience again now. A few months ago I was priding myself on my ability to cocoon myself in my heated room and snuggle into a nest of blankets when I slept.

Now I’m just trying to maintain arctic levels of cool in my abode so I can get ready for work without having to take two showers.

One of my adult students talked at length with me recently about summers in Japan. The summer here is hot in a soul crushing, sweat gland-wrenching, sticky, messy, disgusting sort of way (for us foreign folk, at least). For the majority of the summer, the temperature stays between about 80-95 degrees Fahrenheit (29-34 Celsius). Humidity is high – 80% humidity was common during my stay last summer.

What my student explained to me was about the transitory period between the rainy season and the summer. At the end of Japan’s season of rain (which isn’t really all that rainy), there’s about 10 days of ungodly, maddening heat combined with body enveloping humidity. It’s brutal. I’ve been going to work in shorts and flip flops and changing at the office because if I don’t, my clothes are drenched in sweat by the time I walk through the door. Today we experienced temperatures of 98 degrees with high humidity, and as a result, they entire city walked around mumbling “atssssuuuuuiii” (it’s hoooooot) to one another today.

If nothing else, it’s a good conversation topic, and one that everyone agrees on, which the Japanese tend to like.

The air feels thick and heavy, movements are sluggish, and I find my appetite decreasing as the days get warmer still. The A/C runs at full blast whenever I’m home, and it’s only a matter of time before our noisy insect friends the cicada begin to chirp nonstop for a few weeks straight.

Summer is probably the most uncomfortable time for me in this country, but with the season comes plenty to do. This is the season for fireworks, for little town dances and climbing Mt. Fuji. It’s for having beach BBQ’s with your friends and having drinks in the park. Summers here may be horrendous, especially for the foreign crowd, but I like to think we make the best of them.

And if all else fails, there’s always popcorn, movies, and a good air conditioner.

Packing up…again.

Okay, so I’m not really packing up as I write this – I’m sitting in the Portland airport waiting to catch my next flight.

I read the post I wrote when I was heading to Japan for the first time last summer. I was anxious, full of excitement, extremely apprehensive, and ultimately, absolutely terrified of what I was going to find and what was going to happen to me when I got off that plane on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

This time around, things are different. It’s a little bizarre to think that I’m taking less things even though I’m coming for a much longer period of time.  I packed two giant suitcases on my first trip over; this trip I’ve brought just one giant suitcase and a smaller carry-on-ish sized one.  There was no frantic packing.  If anything, I procrastinated.  I sat around on my computer finding more exciting things to do than pack and attempted to will my things to get into my bags (it didn’t work very well, for the record).

I arrived in PDX this morning to find my flight to SFO had been canceled – canceled yesterday, in fact.  Why I wasn’t notified I have no idea, but I headed to the ticket counter and stood there half-asleep while four equally stumped women tried to re-book me.  I just let them deal with it, enjoyed my standing nap, and walked away re-booked, bags re-routed…so now I’m waiting.  And debating whether I want a nap or a coffee.

Riveting action here, folks!

With any luck, sometime in the next few hours my luggage and I will be on a plane to Narita.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

This blog post has been brought to you by boredom, sleep deprivation, and PDX Wi-Fi.  I’ll try to be more coherent in the future.

Recap: Japan Tourist Adventure Part Two: Attack of the Parents (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1:

These posts are pretty image-heavy, so in the interests of saving your computer a little bit, please click the “Read More” link.

(Kyoto) Here we did mostly the same things I did with Gram back in the summer – we visited the Imperial Palace and the Golden Pavilion during one day, then checked out the famous Fushimi Inari shrine the next.