Thursday, 30 January 2014

J-notes #5

Even more personal notes, based on subjective observations, from the land of the rising sun.
View: | Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |

src ^.
Toilet paper
In general the toilet paper is very soft, and easily break. Some paper has also added perfume.

Picture in Picture ^ (PiP) is popular on Japanese television.

Everyone (?) outside Japan know of Sake, but Shōchū ^ is less known. In Japan this drink seems equally (or more?) popular.

While most people don't, some  people slurp a lot while eating food.

Kites and paper planes
People, kids and grown ups, play with kites and paper (wooden?) planes in the parks when the wind is good and they have some time off.

Some people walk or run backwards, as exercise. This seems to be more popular among elder.

You should never leave your chopsticks stranding up from your rice, as this resembles something that you relate to the dead (incense standing).

Japanese cuisine
There are a lot of traditional Japanese dishes ^.

Cleaning the street
People clean the street outside their own home.

There are surveillance cameras everywhere.

Bent knees and bow-leggedness
For girls, walking in high heels with their knees bent is perfectly normal, and must be uncomfortable. Many Japanese girls are bow-legged.

Sleep on train
Sleeping while taking trains is common, and can be very comfortable.

Going for massage in Japan seems equally, or more, popular than going to the hairdresser.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Okuma, Okinawa

Okuma Beach (src ^).

The Perfect Location for Training Camp
Okuma in Okinawa (map ^) seems to be a marvellous place for having training camps. Hence it might not have been that strange that I ended up at the same hotel as one of Japan's professional ekiden ^ teams. Around mid January might be a low season for tourism, as it is in the middle of the winter. So maybe you can more easily get a better price on accommodation. At least I got a very nice hotel for a good price.

Due to being winter the temperatures are perfect for training. 15 - 20 degrees in the air, and around 20 degrees in the ocean. You have nice beaches, good training facilities and exciting mountains to "climb" (might be wise to stay on the road, since you have the habu snakes ^ in Okinawa). If you have a couple of weeks off, and want to experience a different place to have your training camp you should consider Okuma in Okinawa.

Where to Stay
A good place to stay is the JAL Private Resort Okuma ^ (on Lonely Planet ^). As they write on their own page: "an affordable luxury hotel accommodations". The apartment I got is huge, staying three people here would have been no stress. The breakfast that is included is tasty and varied. The facilities are good. A private beach, a private pool, bars, restaurants, free (but slow) wifi and so on. For reviews check out TripAdvisor ^.

JAL Okuma by night (src).

The restaurants attached to the hotel are pricey, but if you don't mind walking there are other options in the area around. Either towards Kunigami (north), or Hanji (south). There is also a FamilyMart ^ not too far away, where I bought my dinners.

A nice and spacey room (src).

How to get There
You can rent a car and drive from Naha, wich should take you less than two hours (directions ^). Alternatively you can do like me, take the bus. Get on in Naha, either at the airport (Naha-kuko) or at the bus terminal next to Asahibashi station (map ^). First you need to take the bus to Nago bus terminal, then change to a bus for Okuma Beach. Bus 111 took me to Nago (info ^), and bus 67 took me from Nago to Okuma Beach, the Iriguchi bus stop (info ^). Ask for help at the terminal, just to be sure you get on the right one.

Running at the Beach
On my first day I decided to run along the beautiful beaches and in the surrounding area. This to get to know the area. It was a beautiful run. However, what I did not know (I promise, I never saw the sign as I ran along the beach) was that a big chunk of the nicest area at Okuma Beach is occupied by the american military. It is a recreation centre ^ for the US forces. Now I understand why I got some weird looks. I think I was lucky not being stopped, but maybe it was because took a lot of small trails and not going back the way I came. This is my second time (first time here ^) I ended up in a military facility when I'm out running. I fear that one day I might get into trouble. Specially since I often run with my camera and take photos as well.

The beach was off limits, but I did not know this (src ^).

Not everyone are glad to have this many Americans on the islands. There is almost always a controversy mixing cultures. Mainly due to lack of respect from the "visiting" part, I do believe. Not everyone seems to believe that US is at the island to protect Japan. Below the next picture is a few excerpts from Wikipedia on the matter.

Warning, warning (src ^)! 

The United States maintains Air Force, Marine, Navy, and Army military installations on the islands. These bases include Kadena Air Base, Camp Foster, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Camp Hansen, Camp Schwab, Torii Station, and Camp Kinser. The area of 14 U.S. bases are 233 square kilometres (90 sq mi), occupying 18% of the main island. Okinawa hosts about two-thirds of the 40,000 American forces in Japan.

The U.S. presence on Okinawa, which has provoked strong opposition and resistance among the island's inhabitants, is not geared towards defending Japan, but rather to serve as part of an American forward deployment strategy aimed at Southeast Asia and China, the stability of which is not important to Japanese commercial or defense interests.

Between 1972 and 2009, there were 5,634 criminal offenses committed by U.S. servicemen, including 25 murders, 385 burglaries, 25 arsons, 127 rapes, 306 assaults and 2,827 thefts.[5] In early 2008, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apologized after a series of crimes involving American troops in Japan, including the rape of a young girl of 14 by a Marine on Okinawa. The U.S. military also imposed a temporary 24-hour curfew on military personnel and their families to ease the anger of local residents.

According to a 2007 Okinawa Times poll, 85% of Okinawans opposed the presence of the U.S. military,because of noise pollution from military drills, the risk of aircraft accidents, environmental degradation,and extra crowding from the number of personnel there, although 73.4% of Japanese citizens appreciated the mutual security treaty with the U.S. and the presence of the USFJ. In another poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun in May 2010, 43% of the Okinawan population wanted the complete closure of the U.S. bases, 42% wanted reduction and 11% wanted the maintenance of the status quo.

source: wikipedia

Swimming in the Ocean
If staying at JAL Okuma you do have your own private beach though, where you can do intervals and jump in the ocean afterwards. As the water temperature seldom drops below 20 degrees it is for sure comfortable to go for a swim.

Life is good (src ^).

Kuina Eco-Suporeku Park
In close distance to the hotel you do have a very nice, brand new looking 8 lanes running track and a good gym (map ^). To access this facility you only have to pay 200 Yen ^. It's open from 9 am to 9 pm on every day but Sunday's when it closes at 5 pm. UPDATE: I am now unsure about the opening hours. I was at the gym on a Monday and a Tuesday, both days it was reserved for training groups. Hence it might be random when it is open to the public.

In this area, called the Kuina Eco-Suporeku Park ^, you have a lot of other facilities as well, like tennis courses, baseball stadium, grass fields, indoor playgrounds, golf course, throwing field and more. It seems like you have got it all.

There is also a 1 km grass track ^ just outside the track / gym.

The gym (src ^).

The track (src).

My Session
I did 5 x 500m in 1:58, 1:53, 1:49, 1:47 and 1:48. Then I did 5 x 400m, the first three in 77 seconds, the fourth in 76 seconds and the final in 71 seconds.

I can't understand how I earlier managed to do 6 x 500 meters, all in sub 1:30, and 10 x 400m, all in sub 70 seconds. This session was a horrible wake-up call. But I am not sure if I want to wake up. It's so comfortable sleeping.

Wake-up call, it did hurt (src ^)!

Cross Country Track
In the mountains, 6 km from JAL Okuma (Garmin Connect ^), you will find a wonderful grass cross country running track ^. One round being 1.5 kilometres. There is also a toilet and shower room here. All nice and clean, as most thing here in Japan.

The cross country track (src ^).

A very scenic track indeed (src ^).

My Session
I did 6 x 1.5 kilometres, with 1 minute pauses. Gradually increasing the pace, from 4:30 to 4:04. And no, this is not fast at all, and yes, I found it very hard.
View on Garmin Connect ^.

DeNA Running Club
As mentioned earlier a running club stays here at the same time as me. It is the DeNA Running Club ^, that has their two week training camp down here. At the track I got in touch with one of their coaches, Mr Tomoaki Kunichika ^ (coach page ^). A very nice guy that represented Japan on the Marathon distance back in Athens Olympics in 2004. His team participated in New Year's Ekiden for the first time a few weeks back. A race that is extremely competitive and prestigious here in Japan. They finished 17th, which he was not satisfied with at all. That is understandable, when the goal is to become number one. It will be interesting to follow Team DeNA in the years to come. Watching them run at the track was for sure a impressive sight. I was glad I had finished my slow 400 meters before they did enter the track.

src ^.

Mr Tomoaki Kunichika on the left, Mr Slow & Heavy on the right (src ^).

Fore more pictures from my stay check out this link ^.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Naha, Okinawa

Downtown Naha (src ^).

I feel lucky that have to opportunity to once in a while explore the world, and that I don't at all mind travelling on my own. Some might think this sounds sad and boring. I love it though. This way I can go when, where and how I feel like. I don't have to depend on anyone. Hence I decided to once more leave my Tokyo office ^. This time I wanted warm sand instead of cold powder. At the same time when it can be minus 20 up north in Japan, it can be plus 20 down south. South I went. I jumped on a plane headed for Okinawa ^ (more info ^). Three hours later I landed in Naha ^.

The lion dog ^ can be found everywhere in Okinawa (src ^).

It's easy to tell that Naha has got a lot of tourists. I found people in general being better English speakers than in Tokyo. As well more signs seemed to be in English or rōmaji ^. I stayed one night in Naha, at the nice but cheap Best Western Naha Inn ^ (4900 Yen a night). As I could take the monorail ^ from the airport directly to the hotel (Asato station ^), and from the hotel to the bus terminal (Asahibashi station ^), it was a choice of convenience. Overall it was very easy to find my way in Naha.

Go Ya Ya
At the hotel I asked for a place for local authentic Okinawa food ^. They recommended me a restaurant, but due to my lack in reading Katakana ^ and Kanji ^ I am not sure if I ended up at the suggested place. I might have though, as I did find an inn serving traditional food and sake ^. It was called Go Ya Ya (and here is how to get there from Asato station ^). When I entered the restaurant / bar there were only four others there, two working and two guests. Despite of all the empty chairs I was given a place next to the woman in the bar. A thing that I do not think would happen as easily back in Norway. The woman looked at me and said "You, blue eyes! Karate?". She obviously though I visited the island, being a martial arts guy. That I took as a compliment. Karate originated in Okinawa, so I guess a lot of people go here for training. And Mr Miyagi ^ is also from the island (thanks for the tip, Tone ^. I actually found his place ^, due to my knowledge in Hiragana ^).

Go Ya Ya (src ^).

Instead of bragging about my one yellow stripe in Shotokan karate, I achieved for about 30 years ago, I told her I was here for skiing. She looked strangely at me. No one comes to Okinawa for skiing, I realised. Anyhow, despite of her limited English (or actually, I should say due to my very poor Japanese, after all it is me that is visiting Japan) I did manage to explain that I was in Okinawa for the sun, and later would go to Hokkaido ^.

Go Ya Ya was a brilliant place. The people working there, and their guests all very amiable. I was actually given numerous presents, food and sake, from both guests and employees. It was as if I had know them all my life, and just returned from a very long trip overseas. Hard to explain how well I was welcomed, but it was an experience I will never forget. Later, when a new guest enters the bar, the woman next to me yelles out "Hey, meet Frodo. He is my wife.". She was equally unimpressed in my skills at drinking sake as the Norwegians are in my skills at drinking beer. It is always a good sign when you can pull each others leg like that.

From left: Michi, Ikemi, Arakaki and Junko (src ^).

So if you are in Naha you should definitively drop by Go Ya Ya. You will hopefully meet "Big Bossu" aka Ikemi over the pots and Miss Michi behind the bar. Maybe Miss Junko and Mr Arakaki is there as well, enjoying wonderful Okinawa food and sake. But you should not count on impressing them with your drinking, because as a friend in Tokyo told me "Be careful! Okinawa people strong drinker, very strong drinker.".

From White Powder to White Sand
The next day I jumped on a bus, heading north to Okuma Beach ^. So this is how I in one week went from skiing in deep Japanese powder, to swimming in clear blue Japanese ocean (well, actually it is the Pacific's, or the East China Sea ^, but you get my point). Japan is not bad, not bad at all.

Okuma Beack (src ^).

For more pictures from my first days in Okinawa check out this link ^.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Yuzawa Skiing


A Dream For Many Years
A few years back I was crazy about skiing. I spent all my time and money on that activity, and usually had 50 - 70 days in my telemark boots each season. Then, I got fed up (actually, I got married #FAIL ^). Which for me is somewhat typical (getting fed up that is, not getting married). But last year I once more started skiing. It was like being a little kid once again. Anyway, back in the days my biggest dream was to visit Japan to enjoy the world famous powder on telemark skis. Now I have finally done this. One word: EPIC!

From before I had skied at Kusatsu and Sayama. The former with rental alpine skis, and the latter without powder. So I decided to take my telemark skis and leave my Tokyo office ^ for two days for some easily accessible fresh Japanese powder.

A ski resort easy accessible from Tokyo is the Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort ^ at Yuzawa ^ in the Niigata Prefecture ^. Accessing the ski resort ^ is simple, as you can jump on Shinkansen ^ (the Jōetsu Shinkansen ^ to be precise) and get there in no time (around 1.5 hours).

I decided to stay over for one night, so that I would get two days of skiing. I chose the Hotel Yuzawa Yuzawa ^ (alt. info ^ , on Google Maps ^), and paid 9500 Yen for a room with my own bathroom (7500 Yen without). A wonderful hotel, authentic Japanese style and great service. Read my review on the hotel's Google Plus page ^. Note: to reach this hotel you should get off the stop before Gala, at the Echigoyuzawa station. They will pick you up at the station. Other places to stay, in and around, can be found here ^.

There are several ski resorts in Gala Yuzawa, the following within 15 minutes drive from Hotel Yuzawa Yuzawa: Iwappara ^, Yuzawa Park ^, Kayama Captain Coast ^, Yuzawa Nakazato ^, NASPA Ski Garden ^, Kandatsu Kogen ^, Nunoba, Yuzawa Kogen ^, GALA Yuzawa ^.

The first day I skied at Iwappara, the second day at Gala Yuzawa. Iwappara was good, Gala was great. I'll let the pictures and the moving images tell the rest of the story.

Moving Images

Hotel Yuzawa Yuzawa