[The American Years]

Monday, August 28, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where curry is a beloved dish. Different from Thai or Indian curry, and quite tasty to the western palate. Especially to kids! The Japanese don't usually go for goop over their rice. White rice is a pure and perfect thing, you see. The delicious exception is curry. Yum.

During the middle of August we had a week’s holiday. When I say ‘we’ I mean the 90% of the country of Japan. Except for tourism related industries, everybody is off in Japan during three weeks each year: first week of the year, first week of May, and middle week of August. Many companies also prohibit people from taking more than 3 days off in a row at any other time during the year. Which means that if you are Japanese and you want to go somewhere far, this is when you do it.

Those 3 weeks might not show up on the official Disneyland/Disneyworld calendar on their website, but you know they are marked in green highlighter somewhere behind the scenes in Anaheim and Orlando.

Kathleen’s request for a getaway was that we go somewhere cool and not crowded. This left me with 3 choices: our living room, the ice cream freezer at the convenience store, and the mountains.

We went for 4 days of the week to a lesser known area of Nagano prefecture, called Mt. Norikura. You might remember Nagano as the site of the 1988(?) winter Olympics. You might not. Not my problem.

Nagano is in part of the country named the Japan Alps. They were so named by a British guy in the 1880s. He has been immortalized here ever since, though the historic account is that he forgot he had named anything while here, and his only memories of his trip were a blur of strange food, heart-stopping taxi rides, and Tokyo Disney.

We had a great time. The inn was operated by a family who lived in the states for 10 years, so their English was superb, but not as good as their cooking, which was astounding.

The good thing I learned about holiday weeks in Japan is that if a tour bus doesn’t go there, it’s not going to be crowded. Japanese prefer travel by organized tour. In their own country, even. They like the “course” idea. They will choose Course A, Course B, or Course C as the method they will experience a given area. Tourism maps for areas outline ‘self-courses’ for the adventurous…, but not too adventurous. (Off the Couse tourism?... that’s a bit like Breaking the Set, isn’t it? Hmm. Sounds dangerous.)

It worked out great for us. We took some nice little walks around the mountains, and the weather was pleasant, not too humid. All in all, a great time.

* * *

The family was exposed (literally) to onsen for the first time. Onsen is the communal mineral hot spring bath, very popular in mountain areas of Japan. I don’t have the bandwidth here to satisfactorily discuss the Japanese and their bathing, but suffice it to say that the Japanese enjoy a nice hot soak. Naked. With no clothes on. With lots of other people around. In the nude. Did I mention how they don’t wear clothes?

I’ve been 3 or 4 times, but this was the first time for the famly. At most onsen, this one included, the men and women are in separate areas. And having an outdoor tub is a big draw, so you can enjoy nature, nature-boy style.

I brought home a Nagano Hotels brochure from a travel agent to show Kathleen. On each page, there are pictures of the amenities for each hotel. It’s pretty clear that for a vacation, you eat, then take a bath, then eat, then take a bath, maybe some mini golf, then more bathing before dinner, then eat, then another soak before bed. They dig it over here.

Zane and I had a fine time after his initial nerves wore off. However the water (45deg C) was too hot for Veronica, so she and Kathleen cut their experience short.

Onsen Etiquette Rule Number 1 for you first time onsen-goers out there: No Flash Photography. Don’t learn the hard way like I did.

Some photos of our trip to the mountains, maybe too many. No clever slideshows this time. Enjoy.

Japanese proverb:
Deceive the rich and powerful if you will, but don't insult them.

(I think that mirrors the Starbucks Coffee business model: "This coffee is worth $4, and you deserve it because you're special.")


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