Well, summer is over. School is back in session and some leaves are even beginning to fall from the trees. As this could have been my last free summer is Japan, I was determined to take advantage of various opportunities, so I was pretty busy but I managed to see and do a lot of cool stuff. The big theme was travel. As a result my wallet was feeling pretty light for a little bit there but when you are traveling in Japan that's the price you gotta pay. But overall it was what I needed- a chance to get out and stretch my legs a little bit, see some new places while I had the chance.
First was a two-day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima. I had never been to Hiroshima before, but this time it was mostly a train stop for the Shinkansen while we were on the way to Miyajima. We did have enough time for lunch, where were had special Hiroshima Okonomiyake, which is kind of a vegetable-noodle-seafood-pancake, and very deliciousbut I burned my mouth eating it right off of the grill! Oops. After that, we made a brief detour to Iwakuni, where there is a Marine base, a famous five-arched wooden bridge, and a reconstructed castle on a mountain overlooking the town, accessible by ropeway. It was all fairly nice and well-done, but the extreme heat kept us from enjoying things too much. We definitely needed a stop for some soft-serve ice cream along the way, fortunately there was a specialty shop that sold, oh, about 40 kinds of soft serve, the most I've ever seen in one place.
From there, we drove a little bit and then took a ferry to Miyajima. Miyajima was long considered a sacred island by the Japanese, so the shrine and it's attendant torii gate were built over the water so as to keep people from stepping foot on the land. As a result, when the tide comes in, the shrine and torii appear to be floating on water, and it's spectacular to say the least. Well you can walk on the island now, but still it feels different- there are pine trees every where, a lack of concrete and cars, plenty of ancient sites, and also like Nara, there are sacred, tame deer roaming the island to add to the atmostphere.
After taking some pictures that evening, we stayed at a hotel on the island for the night. The next morning, it was back to the main torii gate and shrine, and this time with the tide in we got a really great view. After some more pictures, strolling around the island, and some shopping, it was once time to head back to Ono.
Then, after a brief break, it was on to the next stop, a summer Enlgish camp in Yufuin. Many of the local JETs participate in the three-day camp, doing group activities, skits, games, dances, art projects, etc. The big catch of course is that being an English camp, everyone has to use English all the time. This year's theme was the "Wild West" and everyone really played it up with cowboy hats, toy guns, etc. For the students, it's a good opportunity to use English with native speakers and get a break from the drag of everyday study, so typically it ends up being a lot of fun, but the non-stop nature of the camp can make it pretty tiring as well. Still, a good time, and because it's for high school students, I can talk with the kids at a little bit higher level than with the Junior High kids.
The next morning after I returned from Yufuin, bright and early at 5:15 AM, the next trip got started. This time, I went with the Chitose teachers to the island of Shikoku, Japan's smallest and most isolated major island. Shikoku has a different vibe, being much more rural andnatural feeling, and much, much less crowded than the rest of Japan, it was a nice break from the nonstop crowds one would find almost anywhere else. After a ferry and car ride, we stopped for lunch at some of Shikoku's famous Sanuki Udon noodles, which are just fantastic. But don't take it from me, take it from the wait lines staggered outside the doors of the most popular restaurants. Man, I could eat that stuff everyday. Then we went to visit a temple, Konpira-san, high in the mountains and only accessible by climbing hundreds of stairs, and that was great fun in the middle of August, let me tell you. Next, we checked out Takamatsu, one of the larger cities on the island, and after some souvenir shopping went back the next day.
Next was something that I had wanted to do for a very long time, to go watch the National High School Baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium near Osaka. High School baseball is a big, big deal here. The whole nation watches every year on NHK, many future stars make their first appearances here, and all of the schools reall get into supporting their team. It's every young baseball player's dream to appear, and the top players get lavished with attention by the media. Furthermore, being a single-elimination tournament, every game is do-or-die, and even for the players who aren't graduating, there's no guarantee they will win their prefectural tournament and advance again. So the stakes are very, very high. And there's the stadium itself, opened since the 1920's, host to Babe Ruth on his tour of Japan, feeling very traditional and aged, but also an intimate atmostphere as well- much more than the mega domes that are standard elsewhere in Japanese baseball. It seems big yet small at the same time, and you've still got to look out for seats blocked by support beams, just like Fenway. Open and yet full of tradition, it's a great place to take in a baseball game.
So how did the day turn out? Well, it was long. Four games in one day, about eleven hours total. I bought a free ticket along the thrid base line, which was good for all day. I bought a bento box with me, plus there was a KFC of all things in the stadium, so I had enough to eat. The big challenge was beating the heat. Being out in the relentless sun all day was just brutal. Unfortunately, the shaded seating areas were pretty limited and were taken up quickly. By the end of the second game, I was doing pretty rough, fortunately I found a shaded seat for the thrid and fourth games. There were some dull games, and some exciting games, and one where a team almost rallied from a seven-run deficit, but the best game was the last one. Yokohama High and Sendai Ikuei, two traditional powerhouses, took on each other in a defensive battle that entered the ninth inning tied 2 all. But Yokohama scored on a wild pitch in the top of the ninth and held on for the victory, leaving Ikuei to go home to Sendai in defeat. By the evening, the sun had gone down and the weather had cooled significantly, so I had moved down to near Sendai's dugout. After the end, the Sendai players did the traditional scooping of Koshien dirt to take home with them, crying and sobbing. Seeing the kids' emotion after that tough loss was simply shocking, you don't expect to see it from Japanese people and it doesn't convey on TV enough at all. That might the memory I take most with me from Koshien.
While I was still in Kansai, I took the advantage to check out some other sites that I wanted to see. First was Himeji Castle, a National Treasure and World Heritage site, one of Japan's finest castles and one of the few to survive the centuries in its original wooden form. It's an impressive structure and certainly picturesque, the various defense mechanisms designed to repel attackers are really devious. Also I went for a brief stop to Nara, home to both a massive Buddha temple and even more of the handout-seeking sacred deer. Additionally I made the mistake of going to the incredibly popular Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium on a Sunday, where it was absolutely slam-packed with families out for the summer weekend. A 30-minute wait to get into an aquarium? You better believe it. By that time I was committed though, and while a few of the displyed animals were interesting, jostling with crowds the entire time made things difficult. Oh well. Plus, of course, a visit to Den Den Town, Osaka's electronics district, although I had exhausted much of my funds by that point.
So, in review, it was a very busy summer vacation, but one with plenty of good experiences and memories. For now, back to school, and trying to enjoy fall before it gets cold...