Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cherry Blossom in Nasushiobara, Tochigi


Cherry Blossom (Sakura) was probably at its best in Nasushiobara on the weekend of April 12th this year. It was great in Tokyo 2 weeks earlier. I haven't found a place locally to compete with places like Ueno Park, the Palace or Akasaka yet. But here in Nasushiobara you don't have to share the beauty of the Sakura with thousands of people.

This is a special time in Tochigi. Firstly, the trees are beautiful. Flowers are coming out everywhere. Secondly, everybody is getting ready to plant their rice. Paddies are being flooded and land is turning to water. The night is filled with the sound of flogs and insects. And allergies are back. Cedar trees, for which there was a huge program to plant all over the place, are said to be substantially responsible for this. Everybody is sniffling and wearing masks.

We went out to 4 places to see the blossom.


The first place was Nasunogahara Park. This is a great place to go at any time. There is not a huge quantity of trees here, but the setting is lovely.


Map Location
Next we went to Nogi Jinja. This is a little temple with Sakura lining the sides of the street approaching. There is also a nice little lake a short way behind the temple which is very pretty.


Map Location
I don't know the name of this road, but its lined with cherry trees for about a kilometer.


Sorry, not a great pic
Finally, we went to a hilltop temple which is supposed to be the best place in the area for the blossom. We went in the early morning. I suspect it would be quite busy during the day. In Japan its very common to have a party with friends or workmates under the Sakura. And this is the place where people do it in Nasushiobara.


Now on April 17th cherry blossom is almost over for the year. But I expect a trip up Nasu mountain this weekend will find it in full bloom at some point on the way to the top.
More pics:
Nasunogahara Cherry Blossom
Mixed Cherry Blossom, including Tokyo

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Gonpachi Restaurant - Tokyo

Remember the Japanese restaurant in the movie Kill Bill? The one where Uma Thurman killed the Crazy 88? It was a bloodbath! The restaurant was a set, but it was modeled after a real restaurant in Tokyo. If you know the movie, I think its recognizable.


Its a party place. I recommend going with a group. We were there on a Friday night and the place was a blast. It was very crowded but we had a reservation. The food was good barfood. The atmosphere was great. Even if you don't like Kill Bill its a pretty cool looking restaurant. If you're a fan of the movie you really should go here.

Map Location

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Applying for a Drivers License in Tochigi

You can drive on an International Driver's License in Japan. However, if you want to live in Japan, the right to drive on an International License only lasts for one year (even if you renew your International Driver's License). After that, you must get a Japanese Driver's License. Depending on where you are from this is a difficult thing to do.

The first thing you need to do is get a translation of your driver's license. You must do this at the Japan Automobile Federation office in Utsunomiya. More details at the bottom of this post but basically you just need a copy of your license (front and back) and a copy of your alien registration card (and I think the original). These guys are very helpful. You can do it by post. We went in and it took an hour for 2 translations over lunch.

If you are Australian or Canadian (help me grow this list please) it's now a fairly simple matter of going in to the Driving License Center with the translation, your license, your passport, your Alien Registration Card and a passport photo and you can get a Japanese License. You have to do a written test (which is very easy) and an eye test. If you are from Hong Kong, Brasil, China, Vietnam, USA or Philippines (please help me grow this list) then you have to do a practical test. The practical test is not easy. The two times I have been present when the results have come out the pass rate was respectively about 5% and 3%. I am Australian, but unfortunately, my only current license is from USA so I have to join the second process. It took me two full days to submit my application due to the large number of stamps in my passport. And I had to go home and get an old passport because they wanted to see more travel info than was in my 1 year old passport.

Please don't assume that because you are a good driver you will pass easily. I studied quite heavily and thought I nailed it during the test and my result: 0%. If you want to get your license quickly and smoothly then I suggest spend a few hundred thousand yen (yup 2 or 3 thousand dollars) and go to driving school.

Let me digress here for a second and say that I think the driving in Japan is excellent. I know many will strongly disagree with me here but I think its probably the best in the world (at least that I have seen). Not the best in terms of "how quickly can you enter traffic", "how assertive are you on the road" or "how much like a New York cabbie you drive" but the best in terms of "how calm, relaxed and defensive their driving is". Its a pleasure to drive in Japan. I can understand that Japan would like longer term visitors to their country to drive like this too.

Here is what happens on the day of the test. You have to come in by 9:50 AM to you submit your paperwork (even if its not your first time). You must first pay a 2400 yen at a counter that closes at 10:00AM. Then you all line up and at about 10:30 they inspect your paperwork with you. Then if its your first time they give you an eye test and a written test. You don't need to prepare for the written test. Its very easy. Sample question: "If you come to an intersection and the traffic light is green but there is a policemen there indicating you should stop, is it OK to observe the green light and continue?" The eye test is easy too. At this point on your first attempt you will be given a totally inadequate 4 page pamphlet with some hints for doing the test. You must go to the web for information on how to pass (please post additional resources as comments here and I'll add them to the article). I haven't found a really authoritative reference yet.

At 12:00 you can walk the driving test course. I suggest you print out a map and walk it at least once the first time. Its quite useful to know it. I'll link to resources for passing the test below but on your walk note the location of any lane changes, stop signs, the blind intersection and the pedestrian crossing.

At 1:00 you all assemble in the test center, your name will be called and you have to write your name on a piece of paper and then turn it over. I got off to a bad start when I didn't understand what to do and my tester got visibly angry with me. Note who fills in the name before you. You have to follow them in the test. The guy who supervised you flipping the paper over will be your assessor.

Now just line up and get ready to be tested. You will be a passenger for the person in front of you while they are tested. At the end of the test your tester _might_ give you a hint about why you failed. My hint was that I wasn't far enough to the left or right of the lane before turning left of right (I was aware of this rule and thought I had done it). My wife got no hints and also got 0%. There is no additional feedback on your performance.

At about 3:30 the results are announced and you are free to sign up for the next round of tests if you fail. The calmness and tranquility of the failing attendees is quite shocking. People are clearly learning something from their time in Japan, but its not how to pass the driving test.

I know at least half of my anger about this is just because I am judged to be too poor a driver. I'm also a little bit upset that I can't communicate with the people running the foreign driver license conversion process (and there are enough applicants for them to have dedicated staff). I'm not being fair by being angry about those points. I'm a visitor in this country and I must follow their rules and learn to adapt to their system or get out. But I don't think its right that there is no authoritative reference on how to pass the test, that it takes 6 hours at the center to do the 15 minute test or that information about why I failed is haphazard and incomplete.

My next blog article? "Buying a bicycle in Tochigi" :-(

Links:

Hints for passing the driving test

My Beloved Sushi
Looks like the site is being redone. The layout is still a bit screwy, but I think this site has the best information. Get your map here.

Global Compassion
This site is not as good, but does contain good info. The map is different in Utsunomiya and I think the fail rate is higher than he says here too.

Japan Automobile Federation - get your license translated here.
Map
English Website
Detailed info
Application Form

Update: On my fifth try I passed the test. More about it here.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Oouchijuku - Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima

Map Location

This is a historic Japanese village.

Its not far from Aizuwakamatsu. Some people arrived by taxi, I'm guessing from the nearby railway station.

It was just a little bit busy when we were there, but not overly crowded.

At least in winter the houses were mostly pretty closed up to keep the cold out. We'd recommend going into one of the restaurants to eat since they are nicely decorated inside aswell. Perhaps in summer you can see inside more easily.


There is a hill behind the town where you can go to get a view over the town.

To no Hetsuri, Fukushima

Map Location

This is a very pretty little river walk just south of Aizuwakamatsu. Its not far from the train line which looks like a very nice way to see the area.



Tatenoyu Minshuku, Fukushima

Map Location very roughly! Our car navigation system could find it when we entered the phone number 0241-68-2648, you can book at their website Tatenoyu.

This is a very nice little hotel in Fukushima about 2 hours from Nasushiobara. Its our first Minshuku so we cant compare too well. But in absolute terms it is very good.

I'm not totally sure what the difference between a Minshuku and a Ryokan is, but I think its the fact that Minshuku are family run. This one is run by an extended family.

We went in early January and there was quite a bit of snow, but it was never difficult driving.

The room was good, with a nice view of the snowy surroundings. The onsen was good. Pretty with nice views of the mountains. Dinner was fantastic! There was a little beef hotpot at our table sashimi, unagi custard, barbequed fish (cooked in the room), fish soup (serve yourself from the pot cooking over the fire), many excellent little vegetable dishes including a sensational mashed potato and seemingly never ending tempura coming one piece at a time. It was a lot of food and it was very good. (my suggestion, and I know what I'm talking about here, don't eat two bowls of rice early in the meal!). They grow all their own vegetables and it shows, they were excellent.




There was karaoke after dinner, but all the guests, including us disappeared quickly when it started leaving the host family to sing (for a short while).

This would be a great place to stay when visiting Aizuwakimatsu, which is just a short way north. Locally, you can visit the excellent Oouchijuku and To no Hetsuri. There are other attractions in the area that we did not get to.

And the best think of all about our night at this place? The whole thing cost 8000 yen each for a couple! This place is thoroughly recommended.

Tanakaya Onsen - Shiobara, Tochigi

Map Location


This is a fantastic onsen. If you are in the Nasushiobara area for just a short time and you want to go to an onsen this is our pick so far.

Its not so hard to find. The hotel itself is on the way to Shiobara on highway 400. Its not very attractive from the road. There is not much room there due to the very steep valley and the hotel is jammed in behind the road. There is a small parking area. If the parking area is full there is an old disused section of highway 50 meters down the hill where you can park and walk (carefully) up to the hotel.


Go into the hotel and tell them you want an onsen. The price is 800 yen per person. Then you have to walk to the onsen. Across the road from the onsen just up the hill from the carpark there is a small path, leaving the road, going down the hill. The onsen itself is all the way at the bottom of the hill by the river. Its peaceful, quiet, by the river and has great views. There is a private women's onsen, a large public pool that I'm assuming is mixed though I have only ever seen men in it (except for when its very quiet and my wife sneaks in). Then there are two quiet little pools right by the river. The little pools are not so great in my opinion because they are always too hot and too cold though one of them is very "by the river".

This is easily the number one pick for natural beauty onsen.