Saturday, 14 May 2011

Golden Week trip

It was recently Golden Week in Japan. This is a period of four national holidays within a short space of time to force the Japanese population to take a break from work, something they wouldn't choose to do by themselves. GW is seen as the big holiday period of the year, and you can either spend some time at home unwinding with the family, or go traveling around the country. The four holidays don't all fall in a row (April 29th, May 3rd, 4th, 5th), but if you take off the right days and fill in the blanks you can end up with a long break. By just taking one day off we got a seven day chunk of break and used it to do a bit of traveling around the northern part of Japan.

On Monday 2nd we left Aomori Prefecture for Iwate Prefecture, specifically Morioka City. We drove down on the toll roads to save time, but doing so in Japan can be quite expensive – getting on the toll road in Aomori City and off in Morioka cost us 4300 yen (around 30 pounds) and took around two and a half hours. After checking in at our hotel we went for a walk in the rain in search of some 'jajamen' for tea. This dish originally came from China and is one of the 'Big Three Noodles of Morioka'. The others are 'wanko soba' and 'Morioka reimen'. Jajamen consists of a bowl of wide noodles, much like tagliatelle in shape, topped with a thick meat and miso sauce and chopped cucumber. We came across a small jajamen shop on the main shopping street, and there was one guy working the ten or so counter seats. The place was constantly full while we were there and people were waiting outside for the seats to empty. The food came out pretty quick, and before eating we mixed the noodles, sauce, ginger and cucumber together, as the signs on the wall directed. Unlike ramen, there was no soup at all, so the consistency was more like spaghetti with bolognese sauce. I really liked it.

After that we had a bit more of a walk around Morioka, sung karaoke for a bit, then headed back. Our hotel was OK. It was one we'd picked at random online. The room was cramped, and the breakfast the next morning left something to be desired – soup, bread and croissants. So after checking out we went for another walk and I got a more filling breakfast of scrambled egg and sausages at ガスト, a diner which serves more Western-style food. We walked for a while to find ガスト; decent breakfast places in Japan are few and far between.

Before breakfast we'd spent a bit of time on the internet looking for things to do in Akita Prefecture, the next stop on the itinerary. We came across a useful Wiki made by some JETs in Akita and found some interesting places to go. We set off for Kakunodate, Akita Prefecture in the late morning, and arrived around one and a half hours later. The scenery on the way was quite impressive, and even though we're well into spring, everything still looked red or brown – you can see where Akita (秋田, 'autumn field') got its name from.

Kakunodate is famous for being a samurai village and home to quite a few cherry blossom trees. So even with the rain which had started again, the place was quite busy. You had to pay to enter the old samurai houses, so we chose the biggest and got a short guided tour. The guide told us that Kakunodate had not been damaged in any way by natural disasters or wars, and that's why it's one of Japan's best samurai villages. There were a few food and drink stalls for cherry blossom season, so we tried the Akita speciality of 'kiritanpo', a long rice cake on a stick covered in miso sauce. Jajamen definitely wins in that match-up.

I should explain that in northern Japan, Golden Week coincides with the cherry blossom 満開, a short period when the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, and as the cherry blossom tree is extremely important to the Japanese people, just about everyone spends some part of GW doing 花見 ('hanami', literally 'looking at flowers'). Getting the perfect photograph of this symbolic tree is also very important, and you'll see loads of families and groups of friends posing in front of the cherry blossom with their best smiles and peace signs. To me the cherry blossom tree is just like any other tree – there are plenty in the UK, and there was a whole row I used to walk past every day on my way to university – but the Japanese, and even some of the foreigners, go nuts for it.

Next we headed to Akita City, the capital of the prefecture, where we checked in at our hotel and headed out for a late lunch. On the way in to Akita City we'd seen a 'Round 1 Stadium', and decided to spend the afternoon there. A Round 1 Stadium is a big building which houses various sports and games that you can play as much as you like for a certain amount of time. It's part of the 放題 ('as much as you like') concept which is popular in Japan. You'll often see offers for 食べ放題 ('as much as you can eat') or 飲み放題 ('as much as you can drink'), and Round 1 Stadiums are branded as 遊び放題 ('as much as you can play'). We paid for 3 hours, which cost 1700 yen (around 13 pounds), and did darts, table tennis, target shooting, arcade games, rodeo, karaoke and more. They even had a pond full of fish where you could try fishing. While it's not something I'd do every week, it was good fun for a one-off.

Next we went in search of a Jamaican restaurant we'd read about on the Akita JETs Wiki. With our limited knowledge of Akita City's geography and a paper map we'd bought from the konbini, we eventually managed to find this little restaurant and enjoyed some Jamaican food, as cooked by a Japanese person. The place seemed to be owned by a young Japanese, Jamaica-loving couple, and we ate our meal to the sounds of reggae. I really liked the place; there's nothing like it in Aomori City. There was actually a table full of Akita JETs sat behind us, and I'm sure it's a popular place for foreigners in Akita. We also experienced what seems to be an Akita custom on our way out. After paying, the two owners followed us to the door and bowed, which is something we would encounter at a different restaurant the next day.

Our hotel in Akita was cheaper than the previous hotel and much better in general. A lot of hotels in Japan are cramped, like they tried to fit as many rooms inside a building as they could, but the hotel in Akita was more spacious and only 3000 yen a night (21 pounds). That didn't include breakfast though, so after checking out we found a coffee shop in a department store nearby and had breakfast there.

We'd read from various sources about Akita City's Kantō Festival, and the festival's museum was nearby, so we planned to walk there before lunch. On the way we stopped off at 千秋公園, a scenic park, spread out over a steep hill which overlooked the city. Within the park there are various traditional Japanese buildings and loads of cherry blossom trees, so there were plenty of families out enjoying the great weather and taking pictures. After looking out across the city we descended the hill and walked over to the ねぶり流し館 where we learnt about the Kantō Festival.

The festival involves giant bamboo poles with lanterns attached, and the idea is that one of these poles looks like an ear of rice. The participants take these poles and balance them on various parts of their body, and the resulting effect is a field full of swaying stalks of rice. At the museum there are guides on hand, and you get to try balancing the pole yourself. There were four poles, ranging from child-sized to full-sized, and I tried the top two sizes, managing to balance them on one hand for a few seconds each. We also got to have a go on a taiko drum like the one they use in the festival.

When we bought our ticket for the ねぶり流し館 there was an option to pay an extra few yen and buy a ticket for the 赤れんが郷土館, another museum just down the road. This place housed various locally relevant exhibits, including a room full of colourful woodblock prints by an artist called 勝平得之 (かつひらとくし), which we both enjoyed. The building itself used to be a bank, and was much more Western-style than Japanese.

Our time in Akita was drawing to an end, and we walked back to the car, looking out for somewhere decent to eat lunch. We found a small Mexican restaurant, and, considering the lack of Mexican food in Aomori, decided to stop there for lunch. The food was good, and upon leaving we experienced the same custom we had at the Jamaican restaurant.

I'd definitely go back to Akita. Morioka felt like a slightly bigger version of Aomori, but Akita felt like a full-scale urban city and there seems to be a bit more variety when it comes to activities and eating out, even if the population isn't that much higher than Aomori or Morioka.

So we left Akita to return home, but not before stopping off at Hirosaki Castle for yet more cherry blossom at the 弘前城桜祭. Even though it was night, the castle grounds were packed. While places in Aomori seem pretty empty most of the time, everyone seems to leave their house for the cherry blossom. After eating some festival food for tea, we returned home. All in all, a successful GW trip.

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Getting a haircut in Japan

Getting a haircut in Japan is different to getting one back home in the UK. To start off, it's not just a haircut – going to the barbers involves a shave, having your hair washed numerous times and a massage, so if you don't want any of that and are just there for the haircut you must say at the start. Also, the way they actually cut the hair here is different. Then when you consider that the hairdresser has probably never cut anything other than Japanese hair, it all adds up to an interesting experience for foreigners.

You're certainly not going to be short of options though, as I'm pretty sure Japan has the most hairdressers per square mile in the world. When I first came to Aomori I chose a hairdresser that was fairly close to my apartment. I moved apartments at Christmas but I still go to the same guy because he provides a good haircut and we always have a good chat, usually about girls. But on the way there from my new apartment I pass by no less than five different barbers in the 5 minute walk. If you think Japan has a lot of konbinis, look again and you'll notice there are even more hairdressers.

Last night I thought I'd try somewhere different for a change, so instead of the usual place which is run by one guy, I went to a giant hairdressers that I always pass on my way to the supermarket. This place is like a wholesale hairdressers, with low prices, lots of staff and lots of customers. I had about 8 staff greet me all at once as I walked through the door, and a woman showed me to ‘Chair Number 3', one of the many which lined three of the four walls. After stating that I only wanted a haircut, the woman called out “カットのみ”, to which the whole place replied “はい”.

My hairdresser stepped forward. It was a man in his 40s who had a well-groomed beard and a big name-tag with “のぐち” written on it. He was softly spoken and in his big pockets he had at least 5 sets of scissors and other various implements jangling around. After consulting me as to what I wanted doing, he set about creating his next masterpiece.

One of the differences in the way they cut hair in Japan is that they do things very slowly and gradually, rather than getting stuck in straight away like hairdressers back home. In fact, sometimes they're that slow and gradual that if you're not careful you'll leave looking the same as when you walked in. I wasn't going to let のぐち get away with anything other than an actual haircut and told him I wanted my hair cutting in the same style as it was but made quite a bit shorter. Even so, it took him a while to get going, as he sprayed his water and ran his scissors over my hair for a few minutes, cutting off very little. Next he got the clippers out and I told him I wanted ‘grade 2' on the back and sides, leaving him with no choice but to take more than a millimeter of hair off. At least I felt like I was having a haircut at this point, but it was strange that even after using the clippers he went over the same area with his scissors for a good few minutes, searching for and trimming off the slightest hair that was out of line. In fact, this took up most of the process as he endeavoured to achieve a perfectly straight line around the back and sides. After this he moved to the top, where he repeatedly sprayed more water, changed scissors a few times and trimmed lots of small amounts off until he eventually achieved the desired effect. After a while, it seemed like he'd done, as he got out the small mirror to show me the back and ask if it was OK. But just as he was putting the mirror away he must have spotted a hair out of place and returned to trying to create the perfect line for another couple of minutes; I'm surprised he didn't pull a spirit level out of his pockets. He finally finished and I left the chair with shouts of お疲れ様です from the staff who were just stood by watching, the guy sweeping the floor and the other hairdressers, still busy at work on their own topiary projects.

This Japanese method leaves you with something of a precision haircut, where it's not too much different from what you had before, but it's very neat. It does take a lot of time though, and if I'd have had all the other services it would have taken quite a lot longer. If you want to leave feeling like you've had a proper haircut, my advice is to give them specific instructions, otherwise they might make it look like they're cutting your hair, but not actually take anything off. Also, the shave, hair-washing and massage are OK if you're into that kind of thing, but the massage is nothing more than a few taps on the shoulders with a warm towel over your face, and it does put the price up quite a bit. Due to the no-frills nature of the place, the price for my haircut yesterday was 1500 yen (around 11 pounds), which is cheaper than the place I normally go to. The other guy has better banter and a TV though, so I'll be back there next time.

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