Friday, November 02, 2007

A Great Vacation in Japan

As you may have noticed, I took a bit of a breather from the blogosphere, but I'm back. After an insanely busy summer of moving and working and business travel, my husband and I went on a much-needed vacation to Japan. We went with friends, fellow blogger KM-Clear and her husband. We left the dogs in the care of my mom, who did her duty as dog-Grandma. We also hired a dog-walker to come three times a week and take the boys to the dog park or for a brisk walk, just to give Mom a break and ensure Bax and Kirby didn't get the cabin-fever crazies.

Upon our return, Mom informed us that she had thoroughly spoiled the dogs and we'll just have to deal with that. Thanks Mom! Of course, now Bax and Kirby absolutely insist on going out every hour or two. But they're gradually getting back onto a normal schedule and we truly appreciate the dog-sitting. I'm sure they had a much better time hanging out with Mom than in the kennel.
Our vacation was wonderful. We went to Takayama and Kyoto and spent a couple of days in Tokyo.

We had never been to the Japan Alps before, so visiting the little mountain towns of the Hida region around Takayama was a treat. We expected to see some lovely scenery and get a feel for rural Japanese life. What we didn't expect was the truly wonderful food we experienced there, which differs somewhat from the seafood-centric meals from more coastal regions. My favorite was Hoba Miso: Hida beef and vegetables with miso cooked on a hoba (magnolia) leaf over a small clay burner. I'm not a huge beef eater, but the thin slices of extremely tender local beef practically melted in the mouth. The local root vegetables and mushrooms, neither of which I could readily identify at least half the time, were absolutely delicious. And the miso from that region is amazing -- thick and chunky, salty and savory. Every restaurant has their own variation on the recipe and every one of them I tasted was delicious. Soba (buckwheat) noodles are also a specialty of the region, and I enjoyed them hot and cold (zaru soba) on many occasions.

Another surprise was seeing wild monkeys, known as "zaru" (yes, like the cold noodles, not sure what the link is there) -- large, pink-faced Japanese macaques, often called "snow monkeys," who wander freely in the mountains. We got our first glimpse in the park at Kamikochi, in the Japan Alps, as a large male put on a show for the tourists by following along the boardwalk, sitting down on a little hill and eating a large mushroom right in front of us before scampering off into the woods. We saw females and even a little toddler following along behind his mother. It was quite a sight for us. The locals weren't very impressed, but we were just so surprised to see them. I had always thought the snow monkeys lived on Hokkaido, where they hang out in the hot springs. We learned that these monkeys reside all over Japan, mostly in the mountains.

Our second experience with monkeys was in the hills just outside of Kyoto. As we were walking down a small street after visiting a couple of temples, we saw a very large male monkey cross the street, size up a street vendor to see if he might be able to grab something from one of the barrels of food, then scurry around a corner. We followed him up the alley and saw him climb into an upper story window of a house. A ruckus ensued with the house cat and dog and the soon the monkey climbed out of the window and disappeared behind the house. Soon thereafter the owner of the home, who was apparently working in one of the shops along the street, came running and asking if we saw where the "zaru" went. We did our best "he went that-away" in sign language. She was relieved that he wasn't still in the house, but I got the distinct impression she was concerned about what havoc the monkey might have wreaked in the house.

Our next encounters with wildlife in urban settings were the deer in Nara. They pretty much rule the place -- in the Shinto religion, deer are considered messengers from the gods. The Nara deer have been designated a national treasure. However these national treasures seem to spend most of their time wandering around the public plazas head-butting tourists in hopes they'll drop their ice cream cones. I've never seen deer in such large numbers and so assertive with people. I stopped for a second to admire the beauty of the local scenery and before I knew it there was a big, black nose poinking my elbow. I wasn't about to give up my ice cream cone. Too bad a lot of the tourists, most of whom were Japanese school children at the time, freely gave the deer their candy wrappers and other garbage. Those deer ate everything, and they didn't look particularly healthy for it.

We noticed that a few of the bucks had had their antlers removed. Considering it was the time of the rut, that could be dangerous for them. But we also noticed that the bucks who still had their antlers were the ones who stayed away from the tourists, back in the woods. We even saw a couple of those guys sparring. I expect that keeping the particularly tourist-friendly bucks antler-free not only protects the tourists, but has a certain natural selection element to it, if the more tourist-wary guys with the big racks get the mating rights.
Seeing the huge wooden temple, the spectacular and gigantic Buddha statue and the moonrise over the pagoda at Nara made all the deer-dodging more than worthwhile.
Most of our other animal experiences were a tad more domestic. We saw a lot of dogs in Japan, some breeds I recognized and others that were new to me. Many appeared to be related to the spitz-type breeds, such as the Akita or Shiba-Inu -- prick ears, curly tails, highly focused and cool to strangers. Japanese dog lovers also seem quite partial to the dachshund, and the Japanese version is a tad larger than miniature, with slightly longer legs than the dachsunds we usually see over here. Most of the ones I saw have long hair and slightly shorter noses. They were very cute and usually very friendly, and a couple of the black and tan ones looked a lot like Kirby with a close shave. Another cutie we saw a few times was a little dog that looked like a large version of the Papillon -- same coat, ears and shape, but about half again bigger than the Papillons we see here.
One of the best aspects of going on vacation is the escape from the realities of daily life. I didn't have cell phone service and I didn't have my computer with me. I confess that I did check email from the hotels every couple of days (I hired someone to mind my business while I was away, but I still felt the need to check-in). Occasionally we'd look at the newspaper, which was pretty depressing, and a few times we engaged in "can you believe what's going on in the world?" discussions with our friends. KM-Clear pretty much sums it up in her blog (linked above).
But for the most part I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed being blissfully semi-ignorant for a couple of weeks. I tried to live in the moment, enjoy the beauty of Kyoto's gardens, the temples and shrines, the good weather and the exploration of new foods. I managed to catch a cold about a week into the vacation, but other than that, I enjoyed just getting up in the morning and looking forward to the adventures that awaited us. That is the blessing of vacation.

I'll post some Japan pictures one of these days. Now that I'm back in the world of computers and cell phones and English media, I have lots of catch-up work to do...

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