The Winter Break Whirlwind

…is there any other kind? Phase one of this year’s winter was a marathon of Christmas/New Year’s hospitality where we tested the limits of how many guests our little Japanese apartment can handle, at once and in succession, and how much mulled wine said guests could consume. This was followed closely by phase two, a tour guide relay as we attempted to show our Canadian visitors as much of our region of Japan as possible, utilizing each day to its fullest.

Phase one is technically over but doesn’t feel like it can really end until Recycle Day this Thursday when we clear nearly half our kitchen floor of the accumulated bottles from the aforementioned mulled wine. Phase two is still in session but is on a brief hiatus until next weekend as we’ve sent our visitors off to Tokyo and Kyoto for the duration of our work week, with naught but a rough train schedule, a list of food-related kanji, and maps scribbled with notes. Worst case scenario they just end up at Disneyland!

Phase One highlights:

While a constant succession of ravenous guests did end up requiring a fair amount of work and money, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I really enjoyed having our apartment constantly full of people over the Christmas season, and I think it helped everyone deal with being away from home for Christmas (some of them for the first time). I also greatly enjoyed talking to everyone’s friends/relatives who were (un)lucky enough to skype in during the festivities. Experiencing non-North American Christmas things was fun too, such as the meat and cheese platter (Australia), the Christmas cake (Japan), and Christmas pudding (UK); the last of which was nothing like what I know as pudding, which was confusing, but did involve being set on fire, which was awesome. Here are a few Christmas-time snapshots:

Christmas! Cards, advent calendar of love (two chocolates per door), and a tree complete with presents and stuffed stockings!

Christmas! Cards, advent calendar of love (two chocolates per door), and a tree complete with presents and stuffed stockings!

Opening presents Christmas morning with Jordan and Danny. I got new bindings for my snowboard! I can't wait to use them!

Opening presents Christmas morning with Jordan and Danny. I got new bindings for my snowboard! I can’t wait to use them!

Just a taste of our Christmas goodies and meals: Christmas baking, Christmas cake, mulled wine being made, Christmas dinner, and Christmas party morning-after bacon pancakes.

Just a taste of our Christmas goodies and meals: Christmas baking, Christmas cake, mulled wine being made, Christmas dinner, and Christmas party morning-after bacon pancakes.

One of the parties we hosted, with (almost) all the Yokkaichi-Komono area JETs. Happy Merry Christmas-times!

One of the parties we hosted, with (almost) all the Yokkaichi-Komono area JETs. Happy Merry Christmas-times!

Phase Two highlights: Just as the Christmas rush was subsiding, we headed to the airport to pick up our friends Nate & Maja from Canada, for a 3 1/2 week visit to Japan. They were pretty easy to please, since their main requests included: see a castle, buy Ghibli souvenirs, and eat meat on a stick. We took them around our neighbourhood and city first, then to Nagoya, Nara, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Himeji and finally Iga.

While we’ve been to most of these places before, it’s always fun returning to your favourite places to share them with people who are seeing them for the first time and find out what new surprises they have to offer. We went to Nara, usually a peaceful place, on January 2nd, and it was transformed into a crazy festive environment, absolutely packed with New Year’s crowds going to pray at the shrines and temples for the coming year.

Hiroshima, sombering as its main attraction is, is nonetheless a beautiful and inspiring city, one of my favourite places to visit. We were lucky enough to be there on the last day of their winter illumination, so we got to see lots of pretty lights, even as it snowed lightly all around! Just a ferry ride away from Hiroshima, Miyajima is beautiful, even in winter, and we got to see the famous floating torii gate actually surrounded by water (last time the tide was out). We also discovered deep-fried momiji manju, the most brilliant thing I’ve eaten in recent times.

On the way home from Hiroshima we stopped for the afternoon in Himeji to see Japan’s most famous (and perpetually under reconstruction) castle. It was still cool to see, despite not being able to see the main keep, but in hindsight we probably shouldn’t have stopped there as we had a nightmare of post-new year’s traffic ahead of us. Nothing a few daring detours and a mountain pass of uncertain doom couldn’t solve though.

Iga is probably my favourite place to take visitors, and it did not disappoint, as after the ninja museum and demonstration we happened upon a ninja secret code calligraphy event in Ueno Castle. We then spent an hour and a half with The Ninja Tea Shop Guy, a.k.a. The Most Interesting Man In Japan. One of the things Nate & Maja liked about Iga is how genuinely friendly and welcoming everyone was towards us, which is not something you necessarily experience so much in other tourist areas. The Tea Shop Guy surprising me from behind by donning a costume and pointing a long-barrel gun at my head purely for their entertainment probably didn’t hurt, either.

We took them around our own town of Yokkaichi first, partly so they could just relax as they recovered from jet-lag, and partly to take advantage of their awe at everything phase before they moved on to bigger and better things. What Yokkaichi has to offer: train station, mall, shrine, pedestrian arcade, weirdest mascot ever, and at least one cool (toy) shop.

We took them around our own town of Yokkaichi first, partly so they could just relax as they recovered from jet-lag, and partly to take advantage of their awe at everything phase before they moved on to bigger and better things. What Yokkaichi has to offer: train station, mall, shrine, pedestrian arcade, weirdest mascot ever, and at least one cool (toy) shop.

After Yokkaichi, Nagoya and the aquarium were the first stop. Next, Oasis 21 in Sakae for the shopping!

After Yokkaichi, Nagoya and the Nagoya Aquarium were the first stop. Next, Oasis 21 in Sakae for the shopping!

After a short "phase one" break for our mellow New Year's Eve party, we were off to Nara, along with pretty much everyone else in the country. It was packed. I got an arrow from the shrine as a New Year's in Japan souvenir because, hey, it's an evil-vanquishing arrow!

After a short “phase one” break for our mellow New Year’s Eve party, we were off to Nara, along with pretty much everyone else in the country. It was packed. I got an arrow from the shrine as a New Year’s in Japan souvenir because, hey, it’s an arrow, and later found out it’s for vanquishing evil, like something out of Dungeons & Dragons.

After Nara we woke up at the most unholy hour of 3:45 a.m. to set off on our road trip to Hiroshima. We then spent a full day at Peace Memorial Park, the A-bomb Dome, and at the museum. Left: Nate and Maja pay their respects to the Hiroshima A-bomb victims. Right: a mosaic of cranes with a very specific message hangs at the children's memorial.

After Nara we woke up at the most unholy hour of 3:45 a.m. to set off on our road trip to Hiroshima. We then spent a full day at Peace Memorial Park, the A-bomb Dome, and at the museum. Left: Nate and Maja pay their respects to the Hiroshima A-bomb victims. Right: a mosaic of cranes with a very specific message hangs at the children’s memorial.

After we checked into our hostel, I heard from another traveler that it was the last night for Hiroshima's winter illumination, so we headed off in search of the lights!

After we checked into our hostel, I heard from another traveler that it was the last night for Hiroshima’s winter illumination, so we headed off in search of the lights!

The true prelude to the "happy couple" picture.

Left: The true prelude to the “happy couple” picture. Right: not too many feelings were harmed in the making of this portrait.

Miyajima! Here we are at the famous floating torii (gate), the view from the top of Miyajima's Mt. Misen, and the best thing ever: deep-fried cream momiji manju.

Miyajima! Here we are at the famous floating torii (gate), the view from the top of Miyajima’s Mt. Misen, and the most delicious thing ever: deep-fried momiji manju.

Nice group picture, except that you can't see the torii through the giant foreigners.

Finally, a group picture! Except that you can’t see the torii through the giant foreigners.

Left: Himeji Castle reconstruction phase, we couldn’t enter. Centre: The palace area where the princesses lived, which we were able to walk through. Right: Some preserved samurai suits of armor.

A play-by-play from the Iga ninja demonstration. Sword ninja thinks he will win because he has a sword. Rope ninja shows him otherwise. Mad skill.

A play-by-play from the Iga ninja demonstration. Sword ninja thinks he will win because he has a sword. Rope ninja thinks otherwise. Mad skill.

After the ninja show Maja tried her hand at shuriken throwing. It's harder than it looks!

After the ninja show Maja tried her hand at shuriken throwing. It’s harder than it looks!

Left: A ninja shows us the tricks of the preserved ninja residence. Secret weapon stash! Center: Nate tries out the ninja moat-crossing shoes. Right: The finished product of our ninja calligraphy session. We all got "special" prizes for "farthest traveled."

Left: A ninja shows us the tricks of the preserved ninja residence. Secret weapon stash! Center: Nate tries out the ninja moat-crossing shoes. Right: The finished product of our ninja calligraphy session. We all got “special” prizes for “farthest traveled.”

It sure is hard to go back to work after all that. It’s not over yet though: next weekend we’ll be visiting Takayama, Shirakawago, and possibly Ise with Nate & Maja, followed by one of Japan’s most epic winter illuminations at Nabana no Sato on their last weekend in Japan. Bye for now, Happy New Year, everyone!

genkiduck

p.s. I’ve just added a new post that includes an interactive map about our phase two travels, check it out:

Winter Break Whirlwind: THE MAP

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5 thoughts on “The Winter Break Whirlwind

  1. Wow, Genki, you could get a job writing a travel tips book! Just Duckie for you!!
    Enjoy your time with Mya and Nate!
    Patrice

  2. Sounds like it has been a power packed Christmas time with more adventures to come with your guests. Enjoy!

  3. Wonderful! This time of year there certainly has its charms and you did a nice job of conveying that in your story. Glad that you kids and Mya and Nate have had such a wonderful time. Happy New Year!

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