The first overnight school trip was a journey to Shizuoka, a prefecture along the coast of Japan. Unfortunately, the trip really didn’t start off on the best foot. After boarding another early morning bus, prepared for another several hours driving through the countryside, we learned that there was a change of plans. Due to rain and safety concerns, two of the activities, hiking the bottom of Mt. Fuji and visiting Shiogo Suspension Bridge, needed to be cancelled. Instead, we were informed, we were going to be visiting a few other destinations, including an aquarium and the Horai Bridge, the world’s longest wooden bridge.
While certainly not as glamorous as climbing on Mt. Fuji, it still turned out to be a pretty great day. Personally, I love aquariums and thought the bridge was actually pretty cool. It took about half an hour to go from one end to the other and back again. It also made for some pretty nice pictures!
Fortunately, once we arrived at Kawane Onsen Hotel, the rest of the trip went perfectly as planned. The TUJ students were pretty much let loose on the hotel once we checked in, which gave me time to explore the nearby riverbed, enjoy a relaxing bath at the onsen, and hang out on the roof-level observation deck before heading in for a buffet dinner! After dinner (the highlights of which included a chocolate fountain and freshly made diced steak), we tried renting a room for karaoke, but the price was a little steep at 1000 yen for the room for an hour, and 100 yen a song. So instead, we enjoyed the cool night air on the observation deck.
The next day, we all loaded back up into the bus and headed to the first destination, a green tea farm called The Tea Museum. There we learned about the process of making green tea firsthand. We picked our own leaves, and brought them in for preparation. We learned how to properly cook and dry the leaves and turn them into green tea itself. After making tea, we also got to walk through the museum’s beautiful Japanese gardens, which offered some great views of Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area. Upon leaving, we were given both pre-made tea and bags of green tea leaves to bring home and make ourselves.
After a quick lunch at a rest stop, we arrived at Nihondaira, a scenic seaside area in Shizuoka. There we took a ropeway across to Mt. Kuno Toshogu Shrine, which is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirit of of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last of the feudal governments in Japan. The shrine is located at the top of Mt. Kuno, accessible by either the ropeway that we took, or a stone staircase with more than a thousand steps cut into the mountainside.
The shrine, like all of the previous shrines I have visited, was peaceful and beautiful. After climbing up through the stairs and courtyards to the top, the only way forward was down. We weren’t lucky enough to be able to take the ropeway both ways, so to get down we had to descend the giant, imposing staircase. The climb down was a little tricky, as the stairs were worn away in some places, but it offered some beautiful views of the town below and the ocean in the distance. Once at the bottom, we got back on the bus and headed back through rain and traffic to get to Tokyo. Even despite the rocky start, it turned out to be a pretty excellent weekend.
After a lengthy bus ride beginning at seven in the morning, a bus full of TUJ students arrived at Nagatoro Outdoor Center. After a quick briefing, we all scattered to change and get ready for the trip. The center offered rentals for a variety of gear, including wetsuits (which they recommended, saying a number of times how cold the water would be), waterproof jackets, water shoes, straps to keep glasses on, and the mandatory helmets and life jackets. Personally, I only opted for glasses straps: it was a hot day, and I figured that the water would be cold and refreshing.
After getting ready, the first thing we did was drag the boats down to the river. Each group of six rafters helped lug a heavy rubber boat down a narrow forest trail which ended up at the shore. To “acclimate” us to the water, our guides had us wade out into the water, stand in a circle, then just splash each other with the river water. That’s about the time I started regretting just wearing my t-shirt and shorts under the safety gear.
The actual safety briefing (aka “Learn how to whitewater raft in five minutes”) was, disconcerting, mostly about what to do when you fall into the water. Not “if,” when. And with that assurance, we set off down the river.
The actual journey was beautiful. It was a scenic ride past jagged rocks, stony beaches, and waterfalls cascading out of the forest. Periodically along the way, our guide had us jump out and swim in the river. It was freezing cold, but the current made actually swimming pretty fun and easy. At the halfway point, we all pulled our boats off to the side and made makeshift diving board out of them.
Really there was only one instance where the safety training was necessary. My group was in the lead boat, and several of us hopped out to swim. After a few minutes, our guide said to get back in the boats and said something about upcoming rapids, which prompted a panicked, struggled to swim back upstream and climb into the boat. We all made it back in, but it was a nice little adrenaline rush.
After making it to the stopping point, we all loaded up into a bus filled with plastic-covered seats and headed back to the outdoor center for a lunch of yakiniku.
After the morning’s strenuous activities, everyone was ready for the next activity: a trip to a Japanese onsen, a hot spring bath. Usually described as a uniquely Japanese experience, I was interested in seeing what it was like. And it really was the sort of experience you could never have in America.
After changing in a locker room, you go out into the public bath, donning nothing but a towel (if that). There, you wash off in a designated shower area in preparation for entering the baths. The onsen we went to had three primary parts: an indoor bath, an outdoor bath, and a sauna. I mostly spent time in the outdoor bath, since it was along the river and had a nice breeze. Really, there are few experiences as unique as hanging out with a bunch of naked Japanese men in a hot spring bath along a river.
I briefly tried the indoor bath, which in my opinion wasn’t as nice. I also took one step inside the sauna, and then immediately backed out after nearly drowning in the 100% humidity and billion-degree heat. Fortunately, afterwards I was able to take a cold shower and have some ice cream.