Monday, December 23, 2013

GakuPuro #1 : Arriving Tokyo & Tsuchiyu Hot Springs, Fukushima

No, these #JapanThrowback posts are not over and I'd give it another year to get through them all. By the time this Second Japan Trip's done we've got to cover the First Japan Trip and next thing you know it's time for the Fourth Japan Trip. Confusing much. I'm happy though to keep the memories alive here, and happier still to know that I'M GOING TO NAGOYA NEXT APRIL 2014! ✧(ж>▽<)y:・゚☆ 


In this new Second Japan Trip series, this opportunity actually came about via Facebook posting to encourage university students to join this [学生の力で世界とつながろうプロジェクト - Student Power: Connecting the World Project] organized by Fukushima University and Rotary Club of Minami Souma in June 2012. All we need to do is to share why we'd like to join and in a week or two I got an email confirmation that I was selected yay! All expenses throughout the whole week will be borne by the organizer and all I have to do is to arrange my own flight to and fro Japan. They'll even arrange to pick us up at Haneda Airport, Tokyo. Thank goodness it was already the final semester and I was pretty much done with my final project! 

Before confirming participation though, there's no way mom or dad will pay for this so I had to find my own way to pay for the flight. I was desperate enough to seek help from my  favourite lecturers of all time - Dr Shu and Dr Din. It was a terribly busy period for them so I had to hang around my school's lobby a few times. Managed to catch Dr Shu first who said Dr Din might have a way to assist so I went into the lion's den and rather shamelessly asked for advise. He was so bloody busy but God bless him he listened to my situation, said he can't help with the budget but offered another likely option and even helped me draft out a letter. All this and he's only taught me one class, of which I skipped many times and he definitely knew it lol DR DIN YOU ROCK. With that letter, I had to get the Dean's signature (which is no easy feat, since he's hardly around) and made my way to the university's Student Affairs Dept to pass it to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor's secretary. Much to my ultimate delight, it got approved after a whole lot of back and forth follow up and for some strange reason, eventhough the trip's just a couple weeks away the flight tickets were really cheap - RM600+ for a return flight. Thank you thank you thank you dear USM! 

The Visa application part wasn't a breeze either, went back and forth three times just to compile all the right documents and thank goodness, on the day that it was approved and I could pick it up, it was the day we're supposed to leave Penang for good. I only had one final exam paper in a month, which happens to be on the following day after my return from Japan. It was my Japanese paper. Needless to say, I didn't have time to study and didn't do quite as well as the previous semesters. But hell it was worth it, happy to sacrifice an "A" if it means a trip to Japan hahahaha 

AirAsia pilihan hatiku selalu. Ahem.


As usual, the AirAsia flights to Tokyo lands close to midnight
and this is a (blurry) view of the airplane parkings from the observation deck


It was my first time landing in Haneda Airport and I was looking forward to this one area that was built to resemble old time Japan.
 

"The fourth floor of the International Terminal is home to "Edo Koji" a shopping and gourmet area that incorporates a unique Japanese ambiance. A wide variety of shops abound here, including shops selling souvenirs with a Japanese feel and gourmet restaurants like soba noodle shops. From the 17th to 19th century, Tokyo prospered as the center of the Japanese government and economy under the name "Edo". Edo Koji was constructed with a design recreating the ambiance of Edo in those days, allowing visitors to experience traditional Japanese culture merely by walking through the area."

...according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. Haneda Airport is pretty straightforward, up down left right and fairly easy find your way around. I left the departure gate, went down a couple escalators and tadaa we're here. Everything looked real nice but the restaurants were closed wtf because it was already around 11PM. But still, it was nice to enjoy the quiet area and take my time observing the little details poured into making this little area as authentic as possible. Pretty sleek right? Hardly can you find airports that put such effort. Welcome to Japan indeed hahaha!







First thing I do - head over to Lawson to grab my fave Calpis Soda 


...and take advantage of the free super speed wifi yay! Free wifi is a rare commodity in Japan so this is the best place to surf the internet and let your loved ones know you're safe and sound. Showing off my new phone here hahahah upgraded to a smartphone just a couple days before this trip because normal network roaming don't work in Japan so the only way to stay connected is through the Internet which my previous old phone could not accomodate. Gungho much. All shops were closed save for the convenience store Lawson so I made myself comfortable to suft the night away. Yes I was staying over Haneda Airport for the night so the project organizers can pick me up here in the morning! Don't worry, it's real safe though because there are others around who are also spending the night there and the airport guards patrols regularly. 

Clearly comfortable with my position.


Fell in and out of sleep a couple times and next time I know the sky was getting brighter.
Headed straight for the observation deck to look at the beautiful world I woke up in! 


Looks nice right? Like in those Japanese drama where the dude rushes to the airport to find the love of his life
already flying off for good to another country and all he can do is watch her plane from the observation deck.


Too early in the morning for anyone to be here. It was around 6AM I think?
So I went down to grab some onigiri for a cheap and yummy breakfast. RM7 for these babies. 


Muka tak cukup tidur dan rambut terang benderang. Weather was beautiful.


Had my breakfast at the observation deck and hung around for a couple hours until it was meeting time. Waited near Lawson till I see a few girls carrying a card looking for participants of the program. That's my cue to say hello and luckily Mayu could assist me in communications with her fluent English. Turns out there was another participant from Indonesia, we call him Diida, who also slept over at the airport and we actually took the same flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo! Other local participants from all over Japan were to meet up at the Tokyo Station so we headed straight there. This is when I found out that only the both of us were coming from another country, everyone else in from Japan. And Diida's Japanese is pretty much flawless wtf I am so on my own fml. We arrived Tokyo Station earlier than expected, so we took a walk around the area. Buldings here have a little more Western flair, at least to me.






The rather, ahem, infamous Asahi Breweries headquarters building.


and behind it, Tokyo Sky Tree!!!


We picked up the other participants soon after and headed straight to Fukushima. As always, I was dead asleep throughout the journey and a couple hours later woke up to this sight. Seems like we've arrived at the Tsuchiyu Onsen in Fukushima. This little hot springs resort area is located at the foot of Mount Azuma, in western Fukushima not too far away from Fukushima City in the Tohoku Perfecture. The wooden doll you see below is called kokeshi. Its history dates back to the mid-19th century as local artisans in Tsuchiyu worked on the wooden dolls for extra income during the slow periods. Tsuchiyu's kokeshi  are special in the own way, if you compare them to the usual kokeshi dolls from other areas in Japan. Anyways, upon arrival we checked in the traditional hot sprints inn, met our roommates and went for a walk together around the area for a quick introduction by the organizers. This was a first time for many of us.


Do you know that there are four complimentary ashiyu (footbaths) spots around Tsuchiyu? This is the Kajika no Yu footbath.


It was a rainy afternoon. Love the sound of water bubbling and flowing down a stream. 


More kokeshi  dolls, albeit a tad formal.


I just HAD to take a photo of this as we pass by a craftman's store.
Hundreds of kokeshi dolls in there. Potentially creepy in the nighttime.


We weren't here just for leisure. 
This little town is still recovering from the Great East Japan Earthquake back in 2011. 


We learned from the officials that some hotels and inns were damaged beyond repair while many struggle with the dwindling tourists as an effect from all the negative publicity Fukushima as a whole has been dealing with since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Additionally, as a small town, it was difficult for them to get support, especially in terms of subsidy, from the central government. I'm thinking the central government has bigger concerns than this but to the locals here, tourism is the core industry and possibly the only means to earn a living so it's an issue that the central government should look into eventually. Vacant houses, an aging community and more youngs leaving to the city are also some concerns the people here think about daily. On a positive note, there is so much potential in Tsuchiyu, they have excellent natural resources that are both eco-friendly and renewable but sadly, lacking in activators to innovate and push ideas through. 
Besides the hot springs, there are also wonderful parks, swamps, waterfalls and hills nearby that offer pleasurable experiences to those who enjoy the rich sights of nature. 


Such a beautiful quaint little town surrounded by nature


Returned to the inn just in time for the welcoming reception. Also, dinner.


We had the members of Rotary Club of Minami Souma to say a few words and then, itadakimasu! 


This goes without saying, but the meal was fresh and excellent. First day in Fukushima a success yay! Oh that's Mayu from Fukushima University, Michiyo-san my translator for this program, a member of the Rotary Club of Minami Souma (more on him in the coming posts), and fellow participant (and roommate for the night!) sweet little Kasumi-san. I told them a story of how the old boss at my part time job used to make fun of my name by calling me "tansu" which are old cabinets in Japanese wtf everyone cracked up hahahahaha


First time spending the night in a tatami  room in a futon !! Japanese level +9999



If you're wondering, it was real comfortable and warm. Especially in the cool weather and more so after a dip in the onsen (hot spring). Well, that dip in the onsen was certainly an unforgettable experience. I'm only relieved that I went through my first time in the onsen with the locals, otherwise it wouldn've been an awkward experience. It was because everyone was so excited for it and didn't thought much about the bewildered little foreign me that I could muster up courage to just go for it. Am super glad I went ahead with the ultimate experience though, not that I had a choice anyway, as there were no modern shower cubicles around in the establishment lol that few minutes leading up to the bath was possibly the longest time spent in an internal monologue of many mixed feelings. Can't imagine going for this with family or close friends though bahahahaha had such a good sleep that night (as the picture shows, I look dead tired) and when morning came, we packed our bags and said goodbye to Tsuchiyu Onsen.


If you're ever within the Tohoku area, please do visit the Tsuchiyu Hot Springs in Fukushima.
More information here at the official website - click click - yes it's in English!

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