Monday, February 6, 2017

2016 Winter Vacation 冬休み (Part 3): Sendai/Yamagata // 初めて東北旅行

After the New Year festivities and meet-ups I decided to take a short trip to Tohoku and visit one of the Singaporean JETs in my batch who's based in Sendai. It was a rather impromptu trip, largely unplanned until days before, and I even left my return transport undecided till the day I came back to Tokyo. On hindsight, I think it's best not to do this when returning on a three-day weekend because the unreserved seat sections of the bullet trains were packed and some people even stood their entire ride.

I wasn't even sure what I was going to do when I got to Sendai. I think I was really just itching for a short getaway from Tokyo.

I decided to take the JR highway bus up, which took about six hours (in Singaporean terms, that's pretty much the same as taking the coach up to Kuala Lumpur). There were three rest stops along the way and I was amazed at how well-maintained they were. One of my colleagues mentioned that up until a few years ago, most of the rest stops were run-down, filthy, and lacking in any other additional facilities like food courts or souvenir shops... But in recent years they've been trying to revamp their image. I remember being particularly amazed at the rest stop at Nasu, Tochigi (here) because everything from the toilet facilities to the vending machines were so new.

I arrived in Sendai at dusk, with an awful headache from the heating, and was starving. The great thing was I didn't have to figure out for long what to get for dinner - everywhere I turned I could see restaurants selling 牛たん (gyuutan; beef tongue). Sendai really spares no effort promoting their local specialty. So 牛たん at 利久 (Rikkyu) it was :)

Perhaps I was a tad bit too hungry, but I gotta say that was a really decent plate of grilled tongue. It had just the right amount of smokiness, and it wasn't overdone, and it paired wonderfully with the oxtail soup.

When I stepped out of the restaurant, a short flurry happened for a brief 10 minutes. Guess which silly goon stood in 2-degree weather taking pictures with frozen fingers (and sending them to colleagues and friends). I LOVE SNOW. I love it so much. I eventually learnt that most people don't love it as much as I do, and they find my proclamation ridiculous. Well, it's pretty much the same whenever someone tells me they love a bright sunny day. When you've had too much of something - 22 years of an eternal summer climate - I reserve the right to say: もういいよ!!! 夏より冬!!!

I took some time to look through the souvenirs that were sold at the station before heading to P's apartment. I love seeing the kind of local flavours featured in their products. Sendai is considered to be the hub of Tohoku, so they carried souvenirs that featured other prefectures around the area too (like Aomori's apple flavoured Country Maam cookies.)

I later brought this curry senbei back for my colleagues and it was amazing. I highly recommend it.

Zunda madness!

Some of my thoughts on Sendai:
Sendai is REALLY COLD compared to Tokyo in winter. It was only the start of January, so temperature-wise it wasn't even the lowest. Still, I kept waking up every night, every couple of hours because the apartment was just too cold. And I had the heater facing me the entire time. So my hats off and my deepest bow of respect for all the JETs living in Tohoku and Hokkaido, I really don't know how you guys do it.

During one of the evenings, P told me that this beautiful stained glass installation is the main meeting point in the station. She also introduced the world's best beverage ever invented in Japan - ZUNDA SHAKE. ずんだシェック最高!!!

The Saturday that I was there, I joined a bunch of Sendai JETs who managed to rent a car the day before, and we headed out for a road trip. P wanted to bring me to see the Miyagi Fox Village (蔵王宮城キツネ村) all along and since we had the car that day we took the chance to drive to Zao Onsen later in the day, on the other side of the mountain in Yamagata.

The fox village is situated pretty far from the nearest train line so the best way to access it is still by car, or taxi. The region is a lot further inland, so there was already some snow piled up (Sendai was snowless at that point). When we arrived at the entrance we were asked to read through a list of guidelines and warnings that we should take note of while interacting with wild foxes. Basically it was an informal contract saying 'we are not responsible if you piss some fox off and he bites your ass'. The funniest thing was as we prepared to go in the lady inspected what we wore and remarked that my entire outfit may agitate the foxes a little. There was a drawstring at the bottom of the back of my coat which I had to knot and tuck in, and my scarf AND pants were striped - yeah as it turns out, stripes agitate foxes the same way red cloths agitate bulls. Lol my god I hardly even wear stripes - and the one time I do, I end up baiting the foxes.

The first thing that hit me was the smell. Hmmm. Wild foxes do not smell nice. For real. The place was spread across a large area on a hill, so the packs of foxes could definitely run around and enjoy a bit of freedom, although living conditions for some could be a lot better. The more aggressive breeds had to be chained up or locked in cages :( most were free to roam, which wasn't too bad.

This was somewhere nestled in the mountains so you can already see some snow built up in the area.

Took this with my AE-1 Program camera on film
Took this with my AE-1 Program camera on film

This was a chart telling us the human equivalent ages in fox years!
After two hours, we left the fox village headed to our next destination. There was a GPS that we could use in the car which gave several routes for us to take and we wanted to avoid tolls so even though it was going to take an extra hour we opted for that.

And NO. REGRETS. Absolutely no regrets, because we stumbled across a pretty amazing scenic location en route. That was the very day I made up my mind that when I return to Singapore I'll start taking driving lessons, because being able to drive to the middle of nowhere and finding amazing places and views like the one we saw, changed the image I had of travelling in Japan. I'm still relying mainly on trains and that's okay, there's a lot to see even at this point. But with a car, you can literally scour every inch of Japan, especially those deep within the mountains.

This was apparently some memorial park (for some American fighter planes that crashed in the mountains during the war) that took us forever to locate it again on Google Maps. I think hardly anyone visits it during the winter, because the place is buried deep in snow and we were the first to leave footprints there. It was truly remarkable for us to have found the area. :)

Took this video moments after we crossed the border into Yamagata. A prefecture full of mountains, indeed. I spent most of the car ride listening to Tom Odell. Such a perfect soundtrack for a winter drive.

After a 2.5 hour drive, we finally arrived at Zao Onsen!

It's so ironic that they needed a delivery using the cool-storage 宅急便 service.
This place was literally -4 degrees.

Sulphur springs! It hit us pretty strongly at first but within minutes you pretty much get used to the smell because it's everywhere.
We were pretty famished when we got there, so we walked around and finally found something to eat at a humble ramen shop.


Afterwards, we went to a day onsen (where we left our car to park), which was really refreshing in the freezing cold temperatures up on the mountain. P and I spoke to an old Yamagata lady we met inside the springs, and she was soooooo cute. She started giving us life advice about how to make a decades-old relationship work, and she mentioned that her husband has a big ego that makes him stubborn, so when they get into an argument she usually gives in to him... at first. She told us that the trick was to bring it up again a few days later, so that when he's in a happier mood, then she'd negotiate with him once more. And that is how she always gets her way at the end of the day.

Wow. That was certainly some sagely advice from おばあちゃん.

I think my body had a bit of a shock from the temperature (it was the lowest I've ever experienced) so that night I ended up with a fever. But it wasn't awful, it was just a natural reaction to the change in temperature, methinks.

On Sunday, I wasn't feeling tip-top but I still wanted to make a short trip to Matsushima, just to cross it off the Japanese traveller's destination list. I arrived there mid-afternoon and didn't have the time to ascend to one of the four spectacular views where you could see the majority of the islets at once. But I did make my way to Fukuura Island (福浦島) via crossing the red bridge. It was really freezing cold (seriously o m g it was cold), but I did enjoy the alone time. The place was so tranquil. I think the views would be more beautiful in the summer, but I just liked how the bay and its neighbouring islets felt completely undisturbed and left to be, standing among the gentle waves.

Just as I was about to start exploring the island, I bumped into a current Fukushima JET and a JET alumni that P and I met during a spontaneous dinner meet-up a couple of nights ago. It happened to be our last night in Miyagi and we decided to make a stop at Matsushima. Talk about coincidence!

The island had mostly trees and dirt paths (unpaved), and had some areas where you could get a pretty good view of the bay. We also came across an area where there was a small art installation.

Left the island after the winter sun has set.

The next day, I picked up souvenirs from the station, sent everything back to Tokyo through 宅急便 and boarded the bullet train back with just a bag in hand. I can see why forwarding luggage is so popular here! (Not to mention dirt cheap.) I thoroughly enjoyed my Sendai trip. There was great company, great views and I'm so happy that I could spend the last days of my winter vacation getting my first taste of what Tohoku is like. I can't wait to venture further north next time :)


So, this is a REALLY REALLY overdue post. I finally got around to it because one of the incoming SG JETs wanted to read about my trip. This is for you S!

As I write this, it is nearing the end of June. Five months have passed and as beautiful as the spring and summer blooms were, my mind often drifts back to the winter months. I really, really want to touch the fresh powdered snow, to draw in a sharp breath of the icy crisp air, to not feel the ends of my fingers and toes.
I want to go back again.

Soon, soon.

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