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Pretty in pink

Pretty in pink

Kyoto has many of the few geisha in Japan, and the training process is long. Six months without family contact, a test of skills, then five years apprenticeship as a maiko before becoming geisha, or geiko. Geisha today, or most of them, do not function as high class escorts, as media in the West portrays them. Instead, the perform highly classified dances, songs, and costume for high paying guests at parties. As the BBC documentary features one geisha mother describing it, “It is like having a live flower as your company. ”

These maiko were enjoying a stroll in the good weather in the tourist area of Arashiyama near the bamboo forest.

Happy camping

But once I got out of Nagoya, Nanako’s good wishes must have followed me, ┬ábecause I had the dreamiest ride to Lake Biwa, the biggest in Japan, and found a miraculous open and unoccupied campsite on its shore.

Absolute score.

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Spice Cream

I had no idea what a wasabi root looked like. I can’t say I knew it was even a root. Or how it grows. Or how it is harvested. Or well, anything, except that I like it and it’s green and it always comes in a little pulverized mound next to a few limp strands of ginger in those store-bought sushi trays back home.

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If you are similarly ignorant of this little vegetable, this could be a fascinating post, as I went to a wasabi farm and saw first hand how the suckers are grown! Between Nagano and Azumino, the Daio Wasabi Farm offers just such an experience. And a taste of wasabi delicacies like croquettes and ice cream.

Wasabi grows as a rough root, about a hand’s length long for a medium size, with a few broad leaves that sprout from its purple stems. Sort of carrot like, as a comparison. It is farmed in a rocky stream bed, in rows that run perpendicular to the channel. Cold spring water laps between the beds, keeping the plants nourished without sweeping them away. Wasabi needs high humidity and clean water, though it can be grown in soil if lime is blended into it.

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To harvest, farmers pull through the beds with a metal rake or pitchfork, gently dragging up the roots and collecting the plants in total. Other workers then remove stems and leaves, which are later used in preparing the wasabi product in addition to the root.

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And of course, there’s so many things you can do with wasabi besides pulverize it. It need not always be concentrated into an intense spice, but adds depth to unexpected things like ice cream! Naturally, being the soft cream addict I am, this was a necessary 10AM indulgence.

IMG_7055IMG_7056WWOOFing on a wasabi farm? I’ll think about it.

Following Rivers

(*For an overview of the journey so far, here’s a google map for your viewing pleasure)

WE MADE IT!

Hermes and I have cut through the Japanese Alps, him diligently taking each incline under tire while I screamed, grunted, cursed, and scared every passerby with my exasperation at finding myself, unsurprisingly, still in the mountains. I also laughed my own tears dry, and the story has the happiest ending of finally making it to Nagoya, where I had the long-awaited meeting with Nanako, daughter of the adorable Cocopeli restaurant couple I met three weeks ago.

But it was a struggle, oh yes.

In a later post, once all the appropriate photographs are collected, I will detail the best and worst road conditions of Japan thus far. I’m already crafting alliterations and abbreviations for it.

Before that, though, here’s some of the views that the Alps have to offer, and they really make every drip of sweat worth it.

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The Monkey Spa

Snow monkeys in Monkey Park, near Nagano, grooming and hanging out.

Snow monkeys in Monkey Park, near Nagano, grooming and hanging out.

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One of the most popular sites near Nagano is “Monkey Park,” renowned for its population of Japanese macaques, and particularly, their affinity for a good hot bath. The monkeys come down during daylight hours to play, soak, fight, socialize, and comb each other clean. At night, they retreat into the forest for security. The park takes a bit of effort to get to- a train, a bus, and a hike- so it’s not as crowded as one would expect. Though maybe I’m just here in the ideal off-season, before the snows but after the heat.

Here’s some pictures of my afternoon among my very distant relatives.

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Monkeys in the mountains near Nagano!

Autumn comes to the mountains near Nagano!