My name is Lisa and I'm a crafty girl with wanderlust working as an engineer by day. My blog chronicles projects in my home as well as pictures and stories from my travels.




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Entries in Japan (93)


Misadventures of Lisa and Trisha: Snow Monkeys

While we were living in Japan Trisha and I would often go on road trips on the weekends. We would enlist some of our other expat friends, fill up the FunCargo (my little Japanese car) and head off.

On one of those trips, Trisha and our friends, Martin, Kuan and V-ken, headed up north to Nagano Prefecture. We stopped to see a variety of things on that trip but the main reason was for us to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park. 

I had read about the monkeys and was so excited to see them in person that I could barely contain myself. Trisha took this picture of me to the left waving my hands in excitement as we walked up the hill to the park.

The entrance building was pretty unassuming and after walking through a small exhibit about the monkeys we exited back outdoors into the park. 

The park itself was completely not what I expected. I thought there would be a path with a fence dividing the people from the monkeys, but instead you can freely walk along the valley with the monkeys running right up beside you.

The monkeys at Jigokudani are Japanese macaques, otherwise known as snow monkeys because they live in habitats with snow. Unfortunately, there was almost no snow on the ground while we were visiting because we were there a little too early in the winter, but it was still an awesome experience.

Near the entrance before descending to the river many of the monkeys were occupied with digging around in the dirt for insects to eat.

We also saw a number of the monkeys grooming each other. It was really charming to watch.

The monkeys had such expressive faces and I loved how the adults' pink faces contrasted with their brown fur.

The little babies were my favorite with their large eyes dwarfing the rest of their faces. They constantly scampered around their mothers and I was lucky to catch a picture of this little guy sitting still for a second. 

The monkeys were running around everywhere and were so used to people that they would run right next to you or just continue on doing what they were doing as you walked by. 

At this point we hadn't walked very far into the park and as we looked down into the valley we saw that the whole riverside was swarming with monkeys. They are a little hard to spot because their fur blends in with the rocks, but there are fourteen monkeys in the picture below.

We headed down to the river to get a closer look and saw the hot springs pools nearby where the monkeys were bathing. The name Jigokudani, which means "Hell Valley" in Japanese stems from the hot springs because people thought that the hot steam and water bubbling to the surface looked like Hell. In winter months the monkeys come to the valley to warm up in the hot water.  

In Japanese culture, relaxing in natural hot springs (onsen) is a very popular activity so it seemed very Japanese of the monkeys that they also would enjoy bathing in the hot springs.

Even in the water, the monkeys continued to groom each other. It was so neat to see and I really could have watched them doing this all day. 

I like how the monkey getting groomed in the photo below is giving the stink eye to the other monkey. 

The monkeys looked so peaceful and serene in the water compared to the way they were scampering around on land.  Watching the monkeys warming up in the hot springs with their reflections in the still water was quite surreal and beautiful to see.

We all were pretty camera happy and had so much fun watching the monkeys go about their business as if we didn't exist. Here's a photo of Martin taking a picture of one of the monkeys.

Of course, we had to catch a few pictures of ourselves next to the bathing monkeys.

Even though we were enamored with the monkeys, they really could have cared less about us being there and would get out of the water right next to us if they so felt like it. Luckily, I scooted out of the way before this little guy splashed me.

Trisha was not so lucky, however. I grabbed this cute picture of Miss Trish (it was Christmas time, hence the antlers and Santa hat) but then one of the monkeys decided he was done with his bath and popped out of the water right next to Trisha.

I caught her reaction right after she got soaked. Priceless photo, I'd say!

Before we knew it, dusk had settled on the valley and in a matter of minutes all of the monkeys slipped into the safety of the forest along the mountainside for the night. What had been a hive of activity moments before was suddenly empty. Our time in the valley was brief, but it was so amazing to see the monkeys up close that it ranks among my favorite experiences in Japan.

To get to Jigokudani Monkey Park, we drove and parked there which was very convenient. If you are taking public transit, you can take the Shinkansen to Nagano followed by a local train to Yudanaka. From Yudanaka station you can then take a bus or taxi up to the Monkey Park. Keep in mind that no matter how you get to the Monkey Park, vehicles cannot get all the way to the top and you will have a 15-30 minute steep walk before you reach the entrance. 

Of course, double check the details before you go, but at the time of this writing Summer hours (April - October) are 8:30am - 5:00pm and Winter hours (November - March) are 9:00am - 4:00pm. In the summer months the monkeys will go off into other areas of the park to forage for food, so it is not a guarantee that you will see monkeys if you visit then. Cost for entrance is ¥500 for adults and ¥250 for children and in my opinion is completely worth it!


Celebrating Valentine's Day (and White Day) in Japan

Happy Valentine's Day! I thought it would be fun today to share how Valentine's Day is celebrated in Japan. The biggest difference from the U.S. is that only women give men gifts. I bet a lot of American men would like that!

The typical gift to give is chocolate which is usually beautifully packaged and elegant. Leading up to Valentine's Day the Japanese department stores have many beautiful displays of chocolate for sale.

There are two types of chocolate to give. First is giri choco (義理チョコ) which literally means "obligation chocolate." This is given to male co-workers or friends where the woman has no romantic intentions. Giri choco is usually fairly inexpensive and a polite gesture to give.

The second type of chocolate is honmei choco (本命チョコ) which literally means "true feeling chocolate." As you can suppose it is given to boyfriends, husbands, or a guy that a woman is romantically interested in. Honmei choco is usually higher quality and more expensive than giri choco.

A month later on March 14 men reciprocate on White Day (ホワイトデー, pronounced Howaito Dē).  While Valentine's Day was adopted from the West, White Day was started by the National Confectionery Industry Association in the late 70s as a way for men to give return gifts to women (and for the Confectionery Industry in Japan to rake in more money).  If a man received chocolate on Valentine's Day then he should respond with a gift, usually about three times the cost of the chocolate he received. Popular gifts can be white chocolate, marshmallows, jewelry, or cookies.

My experience in Japan was limited to giri choco that I gave to about twenty of my co-workers. I put together little treat bags with chocolates for all of the guys in my group as well as a number of other people that I worked with on regular basis who were in other groups. On White day I received some chocolates and little potted plant from my group as well as a small purse and a beautiful white handkerchief.

While celebrating was very low key for me there was definitely some angst among some of the Japanese women I knew. Because of the tradition of women giving men a gift on Valentine's Day it is a perfect opportunity for a woman to let a guy know that she is interested in him by giving him honmei choco. I knew some women who were worried about whether or not they should make their feelings known by giving Valentine's chocolate, which chocolates would be best and would the guy understand that it was meant to be honmei choco, not giri choco. Very stressful!

All in all, I had fun celebrating Valentine's Day in Japan. It gave me a nice excuse for me to give little chocolate presents to my co-workers to let them know I appreciated working with them. I also had fun looking at and drooling over all of the beautiful displays of chocolate. I even ended up buying myself a box to eat because, well, I felt obligated.


New Tab: Living in Japan

One of the main reasons that I started this blog was so that I would document some of the stories of living in Japan for myself. My time there had a big effect on my life and I want to record things before I forget all the little details. I have so many things I want to write but haven't gotten around to, so I am setting a goal for myself to write 2-3 posts a month about those experiences.

I also took some time this weekend to make a "Living in Japan" tab for my blog. I made little thumbnails for each related post and have them organized into a few categories. It took me a while to set everything up and get it all linked but I think it is worth it. Hopefully this will make browsing through past posts a bit easier.


Picture of the Day: Traditional Female Pearl Diver

Mikimoto Pearl Island
Mie, Japan


Picture of the Day: Snow Covered Sand Dunes in Otaru


















Otaru, Hokkaido


Taking Out the Garbage in Japan

In the U.S. taking out the garbage is easy. I have a bin for recycling and for regular garbage and on the assigned day of the week for my street, Monday, I pull the bins out to the curb for pick up. When I get home from work the bins are empty and I roll them back into my garage. With only one day a week with only two bins to deal with it is super simple.

When I was living in Japan it was a different story for me. In the U.S. in most areas we don't have to separate our recycling but in Japan you do. To an outsider it can be a little confusing with all the different categories and rules for sorting and disposal.

Among the expat community garbage stories abounded. There was the person who wasn't sure how to dispose of Pringles cans so he saved them in a bag and left them in the hotel room he stayed at the night before moving back to his home country. There was the person who accidentally put a fruit peel in the wrong bin at work and came back from a meeting to find that a Japanese co-worker had put it back on his desk. And of course there were several stories of people decided to ship something back home to throw away there rather than figure out how to get rid of the item in Japan.

Personally, I had a co-worker explain to me that I was throwing out my soda bottles in the wrong manner at work. First, you rinse the bottle. Then you remove the cap and label with each going in a separate bin. Finally you put the bottle in a crusher apparatus you stomp on with your foot and then place the bottle in the plastic bin. This all may seem ridiculous but until you have lived it, it is a little hard to understand how it can be that complicated.

Needless to say, when I first moved to Japan I was a bit preoccupied with my garbage. I didn't want to be the clueless foreigner who was doing it wrong not to mention that if you make a mistake they simply won't take your bag.

First you have to have the proper bags. Each town has local bags that are marked with the town name and what type of garbage should go inside. They are clear so that the contents can easily be seen and the labeling is color coded. Where I lived in Toyota City plastic went in a black bag, burnable went in a green bag and metal went in a blue bag for example. My friends who lived in Nagoya had completely different bags with different colors.

Next you have to make sure that you are putting the correct thing in the correct bag. For recylable things like paper and plastic there is a little icon printed on the item to let you know, however it was not as easy as it seems. There were a lot of unwritten rules that weren't obvious like clean paper should get recycled but if the paper was dirty it should go in the burnable bag. 

With the garbage sorted you have to make sure that you put the right items out at the right time. Burnable garbage was picked up every week on Tuesday and Friday, plastic every week on Monday, metal once a month on the second Wednesday and landfill once a month on thee fourth Wednesday. For the items picked up weekly it wasn't such a big deal but trying to remember to take the monthly items out on the right day was tough. I had one bag of metal items that I missed getting out two months in a row accidently. Below is the sign posted in my local garbage pick up area indicating the dates of pickups and a few example items that go in a particular type of bag. This wasn't terribly helpful to me since I didn't need to know how to throw out plastic robots or cinder blocks. I needed more practical advice on how to throw out a milk carton. I later determined that milk cartons needed to be flattened in a specific way and turned it at a bin at the grocery store. Obviously!

Lucky for me, my drop off point for my garbage was just outside my apartment building. It was a small concrete and tiled area with a net over it to keep birds out. When I first moved to Japan I would take a look at what types of items people were putting in which types of bags so I could make sure I was getting it right.

For items that are not picked up at the drop off spots you need to take them to recycling centers. At the end of my time in Japan the larger items that would have required bulky disposal (which you have to pay for) I was able to sell or give to other expats or to sell back to a recycle shop so I didn't need to worry about it. 

I took a look at the Toyota City website while writing this and found they now have a detailed list of how various items should be thrown away. They even have versions in other languages included English. I sure wish I had that while I was living there! All of my garbage questions would have been easily answered in this fourteen page document.

The first page has a landmine of information. If I had this when I was in Japan I would have known the process for throwing away my soda bottles without having my colleague needing to tell me I was doing it wrong. Also, please note the recycling mascot character in the top right. It's name is Risa which I am guessing is short for the word recycle in Japanese (pronounced risakuru). Risa also happens to be how my name is pronounced in Japanese. Coincidence, I think not...

On this page I learned that I had been completely clueless to the fact that I was supposed to be wringing out my garbage before throwing it away. On my next trip to Japan I will implement.

They are even eight pages dedicated to listing up various items and telling you which of the disposal methods you should use. The list is in order of how you would find the Japanese equivalent word in the dictionary so finding the right item is a bit tough in the English document, but this is still an awesome resource. I always wondered how you would dispose of swim rings and now I know that they are totally burnable garbage.

I've just shared a few snipets of this Japan garbage disposal instruction treasure, but if you want to check the whole document in it's glory here it is: Toyota Region Garbage Home Reference Leaflet for 2012. Looking back it makes me happy that now all I need to do this week in the U.S. is roll two bins to the curb for my garbage pick-up. I will never take my garbage pick-up for granted again!


Picture of the Day: Swan in the Winter at Towada-Ko



















Lake Towada (十和田湖)
Aomori Prefecture, Japan


Misadventures of Lisa and Trisha: Shirakawa-go in the Winter


 January of 2009 was my friend, Trisha's, last month in Japan. My time in Japan could easily be broken into three phases: before I knew Trisha, when Trisha and I travelled around everywhere together and after Trisha went back to the US. Needless to say, for her last weekend in town we had to take in some last bits of sightseeing together.

We spent an awesome day on Saturday in Takayama visiting a street festival and some sake breweries. That evening we met up with some friends who were skiing nearby to spend an amazing night at a beautiful ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn which is like a cross between a bed and breakfast and a spa). On Sunday after saying good-bye to our friends, who were heading out skiing again, Trisha and I set off to the little village of Shirakawa-go. I had been there in the fall and it was lovely so I was eager to see it again during the winter.

We chose to take the scenic way for a slightly longer drive and were rewarded with some amazing views of the mountains and the rivers that flowed through the valleys. We pulled over to the side of the road a few times to grab a picture. Incredible!

After a little over an hour, we finally arrived. Shirakawa-go is a small traditional village located in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture in Japan. A world heritage site, it is famous for the architectural style of its buildings known as gassho-zukuri (literally hands together style). This is in reference to the steeply pitched roofs of the houses which are designed to keep snow from accumulating on them in the winter. The village is comprised of over 100 historic gassho-zukuri homes some of which are still inhabited and some which have turned into museums.

We parked on the outskirts of the little village not too far from Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine so we made that our first stop. The shrine is known for the sake that it makes and its festival, Doburoku Matsuri, which is held in October. On the shrine's grounds is the Doburoku Matsuri Festival Hall which shares the history of the festival and offers free samples of Doburoku sake. The festival hall is closed from November through March so Trisha and I didn't have a chance to visit. The peaceful atmosphere of the shrine among the towering cedar trees still made a visit wandering around the shrine grounds more than worthwhile.

Trisha and I proceeded to walk around town enjoying all the beautiful sights and admiring the architecture of the gassho-zukuri construction. Three of the homes (Wada-ke, Kanda-ke and Nagase-ke) have been turned into museums and for a small fee (each one is ¥300 for an adult, ¥150 for a child) you can go in to see what life was like in these traditional homes. I didn't take any indoor pictures on this trip since I had already been inside on my previous trip so I'll have to share them in another post. If you find yourself visiting Shirakawa-go I would definitely recommend going inside at least one of the homes.

With the huge snowdrifts built up everywhere, someone had dug one out in the middle of town to create a cave with Shirakawa-go (白川郷) written along each side of the entrance.  All the Japanese tourists were using it as a photo op and I figured I should play along. 

Not all homes in Shirakawa-go are built in the gassho-zukuri style with the steep roofs. Snow accumulation on those flatter roofs could be a problem and we saw a man actually shoveling his roof.

Each of the old homes was surrounded by small plots of land for farming. The reflections of the buildings in some of the exposed rice paddies was really lovely.

After wandering around town Trisha and I decided to head up to Shirayama Viewpoint. The short, steep walk up to the lookout was definitely worth it to see the views of the valley below. It seemed like it was straight out of a fairytale.

Naturally, with that gorgeous view we would be remiss not to get a few shots of ourselves. It is so surreal looking that it almost looks like we are standing in front of a fake photography backdrop.

No place in Japan is complete without the obligatory warning signs about impending doom and disaster and the viewpoint was no exception so I had to snap a picture before we headed back down into town. 

As we headed back to the car we grabbed a few more photos as we walked through town savouring all of the magnificent views of the snowy roofs.

At this point is where a normal story would end, but this is not a normal story, this is a Trisha and Lisa story. When we got back to the car I went to put in our destination and the Navi remote was missing. Yes, that's right, I said the Navi remote. What? You have never heard of such a thing? I never had before, either.

Let me back up and explain a little bit about my car and roads in Japan. First, Japan's address system is totally different from Western countries. Instead of a building having a number on a street, towns are divided into neighborhoods, blocks within a neighborhood are assigned a number and the buildings within the block are then numbered. The numbering of the buildings, however, doesn't typically correlate with where on the block it is, but instead when it was built. Only major roads have names, and with the Japanese address system it is virtually impossible to drive someplace you are not familiar with unless you have a Navigation system.

Second, because I am cheap, I decided to lease the most inexpensive vehicle I could when I was living in Japan which turned out to be a used 2002 Toyota Funcargo. The Navi that had been put in the car was quite old and you input the destination through a remote. I've never seen a remote controlled Navi before and I've never seen one since. On the plus side, since the place that I leased my vehicle through specialized in leasing to ex-pats my Navi remote was in English.

Anyway, back to the story, Trisha and I were really stuck. Without the Navi remote we couldn't put in an address and we were pretty sure we would get lost going back. We searched all around the car to see if it had fallen out nearby with no luck. We definitely had the remote when we left Takayama, because we had input the directions to Shirakawa-go. Although we had stopped a few times along our route to take photos, because of the cold we mostly just rolled down the window to take our shots and only got out of the car one time. That spot had to be where we lost the remote. Luckily, Trisha remembered that there was an orange construction crane for some reason near the place we had stopped. 

We back tracked our way out of town keeping our eyes peeled for the orange crane. After over half an hour of scanning the roadside we finally spotted it and pulled over. We did a bit of searching and there it was, half buried in the snow.

I was so relieved to have found it that the momentous recovery had to be documented with a photo holding the remote in front of the crane. To be honest we were really lucky and I have no idea how we would have found that same exact spot if it hadn't been for the crane. I'm also super lucky that Trisha remembered that the crane was where we got out of the car. Miss Trish is awesome like that!

We used the remote to put in our destination and we were on the road again. Of course, we made a few stops along the way for more pictures, but after our little incident we prudently made sure to check that the remote was in the car at all times.

If you are interested, check out some more of my travel misadventures with Trisha here: Overnight to the Rice Fields of Banaue,  Getting a Ride to the Beijing Opera, The Great ATM Debacle, Japanese Pottery Fun in Seto


Picture of the Day: Snow Along the Banks of Lake Shikotsu


















Lake Shikotsu
Hokkaido, Japan


Picture of the Day: Closeup of Lights at the Kobe Luminarie




















Kobe, Japan