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Family Vacation part 3: 中国

2010 January 24

Some people may be reading that title and thinking “They went to China?!” In both Chinese and Japanese, China is written in idiograms as 中国 (Japanese pronunciation “Chugoku”) – the “Middle Country”, since it’s the center of the world as far as Asia’s concerned. However, Japan has its own “middle country” – the region on the lower end of the main island Honshu is called 中国 as well.

Honshu’s 中国 consists of five prefectures. Okayama, Hiroshima, and the lower half of Yamaguchi are the 山陽 (“Sanyo”, “mountain sun”) region, since they fall on the sunny side of the Chugoku mountain range. Tottori, Shimane, and upper Yamaguchi are the 山陰 (“San-in”, “mountain shade”) region, since they get less sun and more bad weather. “In” and “yo” are also related to the Chinese concepts of “yin” and “yang”.

Kyoto To Yonago

The bullet train from Kyoto goes as far as Okayama city, on the coast of Okayama prefecture. From there, you have to switch to a local line to cross the mountains into Tottori and the San-in region. The train goes as far as Izumo, at which you have to change to stay on the San-in line, but we got off at one of Tottori’s major cities: Yonago.

The View from our Hotel in Yonago

Tottori is the most rural prefecture in Japan. The second most rural is my own Shimane, from which Tottori split in the late 1800’s. Eastern Shimane and western Tottori were both part of the Izumo kingdom in ancient Japan, so they still share many cultural and dialectal similarities. Not surprising, since Shimane’s capital Matsue and Tottori’s Yonago are only half an hour apart by train. Tottori and Shimane even have similarities in their prefectural flags:


Tottori’s (on the right) is supposed to be と (phonetic “to”) and also a bird, since the prefecture’s name 鳥取 means “bird take” in honor of the waterfowl catching that sustains the prefecture.

Tottori’s unique tourist attraction is Japan’s only sand dunes, at which you can apparently ride camels. It’s on my to-do list to compare camel-riding in Tottori with camel-riding in a Bedouin camp in Israel. 🙂

Yonago is a fairly big city, but shares a lot with Hamada in that there’s not much to do unless you take the bus to a mall or a seaside attraction. We spent our first night making preparations for adventuring to Mt. Daisen the next day and then went to yakiniku, Korean-style barbecue, for the first time. It was my first time too, so I didn’t know what to order, but a not-too-shabby looking waiter helped us put together an excellent meal. 😀

Our main purpose for going to Yonago was so that Sam could snowboard on Mt. Daisen, the biggest mountain in the Chugoku region.

Mt Daisen

大山 literally means “big mountain”, so it’s obviously a big deal. Shinto being an animistic religion, mountains are always believed to hold venerable kami (gods/spirits), specifically male kami. The fields below them are always home to female kami, who are fertilized by the spring melt of the mountain god each year. This paralleled original family structure in Japan, where a man visited his wife on her property. (Had to break out my notes from Religions of East Asia to write up that one!)

Mt Daisen

Little figures like this are all over the Japanese landscape. Some of them are Buddhas or bodhisattvas; some of them are local kami. They are always honored by being dressed in a red cap and cloak to protect them from the elements.

Mt Daisen
There were a bunch of professional skiiers dressed in animal suits on the main lift while we were there. Your guess is as good as mine!
Mt Daisen

Mt Daisen

Daisen was extremely windy the day we were there, and we left early when they started shutting down lifts that were being blown too much by the wind. We went out for Indian curry that night and did a little shopping at Saty, the department store closest to Yonago Station. We returned to Saty the next morning for train provisions and pastries and then got back on the San-in line for the trip to Hamada.

Happy Year of the Tiger, by the way!


It felt really good to leave Yonago and head for Hamada. I take the same line whenever I head to Matsue or Izumo for meetings with the other Shimane ALTs, but this time in particular, it really felt like going home. Maybe that had something to do with how excited I was not to have to lug around my big suitcase. 😉


The Sea of Japan was choppy and stern-looking all the way down the coast. Hamada was cloudy as usual. Mom and Dad checked into the hotel closest to my neighborhood and walked over to find Sam firmly stuck under my kotatsu and already shopping for his own on eBay.


The kotatsu is pretty much a miracle invention. Japanese houses are usually built for summer and are not well insulated, so in the winter, it’s very valuable to have a space that can be cheaply heated. The modern kotatsu is a table with an electric heating unit strapped to the underside. A blanket goes between the table frame and table top that extends all the way down to the floor. You sit with your legs under the kotatsu and switch it on, so you can stay warm while relaxing at home. There only two disadvantages to a kotatsu: it’s hard to leave, and you have to remember to turn off your table!

Mara's Car

Wednesday was our big trip to Aquas, the biggest aquarium in Western Honshu and Hamada’s main tourist attraction. We managed to squeeze everyone into my Minica and drive out!


The first tank in Aquas is a Shimane tank, full of fish that can be found in the Sea of Japan and specifically on the coast of our prefecture. A lot of them are not too pretty to look at, but that makes it easier to eat them. The balloon porcupinefish were the cutest. :3


We then walked through the hall of Japanese marine species, and my family started to sympathize with the locals who walk through Aquas going 「食べたらいいなぁ...」 – “Wouldn’t it be good if we could eat that…”


The centerpoint of the first floor is a tank with a walkway going through it, so you can watch sharks and turtles and rays swim over you.


The third floor has some more exotic sealife from other regions.

Aquas’s main attractions span the second and third floors. On the second floor in an outdoor tank are the seals and sea lions, who are very friendly and swim around looking at everyone. The stars of the building are indoors: the beluga whales, which are called シロイルカ (white dolphins) in Japanese. Two of the males and one of the females usually perform a show for patrons at which they blow a coordinated bubble ring called the “Bubble of Happiness”. I haven’t been able to see the show yet, though, because this summer the female gave birth to a new baby boy! We were able to catch them in the tank together this time; Mama is trying to teach him to blow bubbles, but he just wants to play basketball like the big guys. :D


The new exhibit at Aquas is the penguins. There are three species in an indoor/outdoor tank with all sorts of observation points, including a room where you can lie horizontally on couches and watch the penguins swim over you:


Mara's Minica

There’s a bridge from the main Aquas building over to the beach, shaped like a beluga’s tail and visible from the train on the way in. We crossed it to take a look, but the weather had turned awful again, so we rushed off the beach and over to the rest stop overlooking central Hamada city for lunch and a better (indoor) view. 🙂

Dinner with the Aikaiwa

That night, we had dinner with one of my eikaiwa groups, who helped us order many local delicacies. In exchange, they got an earful on universal healthcare in America. It was a very interesting conversation, though, and both sides seemed grateful for the opportunity to have it.


On Thursday we drove around to see some of my schools. It was snowy out in Haza again, but at least the view was nice there; we didn’t make it all the way out to Ino because Murodani was rainy and grey. We also spent a bit of time fixing up my house, continuing the work we’d started Wednesday after Aquas.

Dinner at Sushizou

Then the family joined me for Thursday night’s traditional dinner at Sushizou and ice cream afterwards at YouMe Town.

The Road to Mizuho

On Friday, we traded in my Minica for a rental Minicab Van and took the Hamada Expressway over the border into Ohnan Town to Mizuho Highlands, the biggest ski slope in the area.

Mizuho Highlands

Mizuho had a fresh batch of snow, so the roads were tricky, but the boarding conditions were perfect. Sam quickly learned that, in Japan, when they say 100 centimeters, they mean 100 centimeters; nothing gets packed down. When snow’s in season, the slopes are mostly left alone.

Bubble "Gondora"
Bubble "Gondora"

We all rode up the mountain on the gondora, which was a four-person bubble. Then three of us hung out in the lodge listening to four dance hall tunes on repeat while Sam taught himself to ride powder. The next day, we drove him out to meet some ALTs, and I took the parents to a fantastic onsen (hot spring) for a bit of relaxation.


Mom and Dad spent the night in a hotel next to the station, so they were able to see my favorite little fixture in Hamada, the Hamada Station clock. Every hour on the hour (during daylight), it opens to reveal a kagura band, then a miniature kagura performance, then a final layer of Susanoo slaying Orochi on top.


Monday was my last day off work, a public holiday called 成人の日 (“Seijin no Hi”) that honors those turning 20 and becoming adults between April of last year and the upcoming April. Hamada holds its celebrations early so that all the university students that have left Hamada can get back to school in time, so Sam could have put on a suit and celebrated, but instead we left Hamada on Sunday for Hiroshima.

Hiroshima was the last part of my holiday with the family. The bus brought us in around 4, so after scouting out a hotel for the night, we took a cab to the major pedestrian mall and did some shopping.



We hit another Uniqlo, and I finally joined the club that all Japanese people belong to and bought some basics.


The shopping mall ends at the Peace Park, so we ducked in to take a look at the Dome and the Children’s Memorial at night. It’s a weird convergence, so much shopping and so much gravity.


We had dinner in Okonomi-Mura, a “village” of okonomiyaki stands that spans three floors of a building. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a variation on the original Kansai-style, which mixes all the ingredients into the batter before cooking. Hiroshima-style involves noodles and is made in layers, making it harder to flip. Mom and Dad seem to be Hiroshima-style fans, but I think I still prefer Kansai-style myself, as it involves more sauce.


Sunday night, Sam and I watched SMAP Ganbarimasu 2010. It seems like a large percentage of television these days is the boy band SMAP (a five-man group that debuted in 1991) participating in game show contests or generally making fools of themselves. It was nice to take my mind off the impending goodbyes and laugh a little (okay, a lot – Katori Shingo as a Jomon-era caveman is hilarious).


After I helped Dad book a hotel room at Narita Airport for their last two days in Japan, we spent Monday morning at Hiroshima’s prefectural art museum, which is right next to an old garden called Shukkei-in that is a miniature replica of a much larger and more famous garden in China. Shukkei-in was mostly destroyed by the atomic bomb and had to be recreated, but some things did survive, including the central bridge and a very lucky old ginkgo tree. Both the garden and the museum were very beautiful.


And that’s it for my winter vacation with my family. We had lunch at a restaurant in Asse department store attached to the station; then Dad and Sam ran to buy me pastries while I waited for the bus, and we said goodbye. They headed off to Miyajima while I headed home; I have their pictures from the rest of that day on my Flickr. You’ll have to ask them how Tokyo on the way back was. 🙂


All in all, it was a fantastic visit. At first I felt refreshed and ready to get back to work; then, in between bouts of motivation, I felt pretty lonely. It was different to be back in my apartment as an independent woman after having had them there taking care of me. I’m very happy that they’re home now, though; it was difficult to have them in Tokyo, in the same country but still hard to reach. Now we can talk on Skype again, and I can even Skype with Pinky. :3 My family has experienced the best (and some of the worst weather-wise – thanks San-in!) of Japan and probably understands my life here a lot better, so I’m not the only one who can answer questions now! And we got lots of fantastic pictures, the most valuable of which, I think, are the ones of us. Not just because I’ll be using them in my self-introduction lesson in April. 😉

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010 January 25 10:57 am

    It has been such a long time since I’ve seen your family — the last time was at Sam’s bar mitzvah. It’s amazing to see these photographs and see how they’ve changed, especially your father.

    I’m glad you enjoyed your time with your family. Take advantage of it while you can; time passes too quickly.

  2. Sparks permalink
    2010 January 28 10:48 pm

    me, you, that aquarium… one day…

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