Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Kobe Ruminarie

As a memorial for the victims of the major earthquake that struck Kobe in 1995 the city puts on a huge light display in December. It was described to us as organized line walking for a half an hour and then 10 minutes of seeing lights, which was pretty much how it went. The city blocks off streets to accommodate the line of people waiting to walk through the display, yes the line is two lanes wide. Cutting is also a major no-no here. All along the path there are people in security uniforms wielding orange light-up batons to make sure no one is jumping ahead.

The crowds were crazy, even by Japanese standards. After the 30min line and the 10min display, the lights open up to a huge circle. At this point there are no longer men with orange batons telling you where to go and it all turns into chaos.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fukuchiyama Madness

So... I've been a little slow about writing this, given that it actually happened two weeks ago. Wednesday I had the day off work for Labor Thanksgiving Day, and we celebrated by heading up to lovely Fukuchiyama so that I could run in the annual Fukuchiyama Marathon.

Fukuchiyama is a small town and we didn't think we'd manage to find a place to stay there (we did see some tents set up in the part with the starting/finish area, so I guess that's an option), so we got up early (4:30am) in order to catch the first train out of Kobe. We'd picked up various delicious baked things at a bakery the night before for an on-the-road breakfast, so we set right out. (Incidentally, eating on trains is very uncouth, so I try to do it only when I'm really hungry.) The first couple of trains were OK, then at Takarazuka we transferred to the train that would take us the rest of the way to Fukuchiyama. This was our first taste of what was to come -- the train was absolutely packed full of runners who'd gotten up too early to shower, with a special claustrophobic feeling added by the fact that all the windows were fogged up. It was a happy ride. I should add that when (eventually) a seat freed up near us, Quinn insisted that I sit down, since I was going to be running in a few hours. Someone else would have taken it if I'd stood there arguing with her, so I left chivalry by the wayside and sat down.

When we arrived, we stood in line for what seemed like a very long time to catch the shuttle bus from the train station to the park where the race would start. Things were apparently running late, and we boarded the bus well after I was supposed to have signed in. Once we got there, I signed in in a rush, stood in line for half an hour to use a (squatter-style) portable restroom in a rush, changed my clothes in a rush, and headed down to the starting line. Meanwhile, we were treated to loudspeakers all around the park treating us to the (loud, shrill) contributions of a woman who was running some kind of raffle or something. It was quite a relief once I actually started running and I could finally relax a little. Quinn, meanwhile, stayed behind with warm clothes, Atlas Shrugged, and the loudspeaker woman.

There were a lot of people running. These pictures Quinn took are downright panic-attack-inducing, if you don't like big crowds. Fortunately it was a big crowd that was all moving in one direction, and once we'd sorted out so that everyone around me was going more or less the same speed it was OK. For the first half hour or so, I never could really just relax and take my mind off of crowd navigation, because whenever I did that it was only a few seconds before I'd nearly collide with a very slow runner who managed to place themselves right in front of me. The weather was good; cloudy and a little on the cold side, but no one had to worry about heat stroke. No rain until we were on the train home.

The first 10km or so of the race made a loop through the town, and it seemed like the whole town had turned out to watch the race. There were groups of people playing taiko drums (one had scary monster masks to add to the fun), people of all ages yelling "Ganbare! Ganbare!" (go! go!), and a few high school bands from the area. One was playing "We wish you a merry Christmas" when I passed them. There was one guy in a samurai costume giving everyone high-fives. Once we'd looped through the town, we turned and headed along the Yura river until we reached about the 25km mark; after that we headed back to the park.

The Fukuchiyama marathon is specifically set up to be a blind-friendly marathon and I saw quite a few blind runners. Blind runners get a guide (with a special guide number) and they both run while holding on to a little strap that keeps them together and synchronized. If you're blind and you're in better shape than all your friends and loved ones, then you can have multiple guides who take you like a relay; I often saw groups of guides standing around waiting for their running partner to show up.

It didn't take long to realize that I was running much faster than my goal pace, so I figured I'd just go with it and see if I could keep it up. My final time was 3:17:04 -- 13 minutes faster than the goal I'd set for myself and 18 minutes faster than my previous time. Crossing the finish line was sort of interesting; there was a big area where everyone just sort of stopped, and you saw a bunch of people standing around just looking stunned. I felt fine as long as I was running, but as soon as I stopped all the lights got too bright and I felt sort of odd for a while. Fortunately, there were volunteers keeping us supplied with sports drink and hot soup to help us get to feeling human again. Quinn and I went to a ramen place for lunch and then began the long trek back home again.

I'd like to do another one in the spring and I found a (rather extensive) list of marathons in Asia online: ... who knows?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fall Colors

Observing nature is a common past time in Japan. There are, of course, the spring cherry blossoms. There's also insect listening parties, watching snow falling parties and appreciating fall colors. In honor of being in Japan, the first enrichment I organized as Relief Society President was to go see the momiji, the red maple leaves of fall. I decided we'd go to a park famous for momiji, Minoo Park. The day we decided to go was Nov. 19th and it poured rain all day. Three adventurous ladies decided to go with me and we swam up the trail to a 90ft water fall. I tried taking pictures but they're all spotty because of rain drops falling through the pictures. One good picture I took was of Rachel holding up momiji tempura - a specialty of the park and it is exactly what it sounds like, battered and fried maple leaves.

Some of you know I don't like monkeys, so this story is especially funny. Two days before our trip I had my one-on-one Japanese lesson with Sakamoto-sensei. She told me that two years ago there was a story on the news about the monkeys of Minoo Park. "The monkeys!" I exclaimed since in everything I read about how beautiful the park is there was NO mention of monkeys. She told me that two years ago the monkeys had gotten so aggressive that it made the news and said we shouldn't have a picnic because the monkeys would probably try to take our food. I was not pleased. I was actually glad it was raining since I had a big umbrella that not only protected me from the rain but could easily be used to bat monkeys away. Luckily there were no monkeys and just sings everywhere telling people it was a (translated from yen) $100 fine for feeding monkeys.

Because of the rain Craig and I went back to the park the next weekend. It was beautiful weather and shoulder to shoulder crowds. Craig also agreed to be my 'monkey repeller" but there were no monkeys to repel. Perhaps they culled the Minoo Park monkey herd.

Can you see all the other photographers?

I found it crazy that there was a pink flower blooming bush next to the trees turning red and yellow.

The first day I noticed that leaves were falling was Nov 30th. I can certainly get used to a long fall and, hopefully, a short winter. This is the view from our front door on Dec. 1st.