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Friends in Nagano

2015-09-23

Takashi lives in Nagano, and we went to visit him over Silver Week. Miho, Aoi, Mayu, and I took off early Monday morning to beat the holiday traffic. That was a good decision, and we made it up to Nagano City in decent time. After a stop by Takashi's place to pick him up, we headed south to Matsumoto and Matsumoto Castle (松本城). It is said that the three most famous castles in Japan are Matsumoto Castle, Himeji Castle, and Osaka Castle. Now I've seen all three.

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It is said that in Japan, age plays a significant role in determining the power structure. Students at school are typically quite deferential to their seniors. Of course the same thing happens in the U.S. to some degree, but let's suppose the effect here is somewhat stronger, on average. Some of the activities I've done — karate and dance — are refreshingly age independent. It's very nice how our travel group this time, comprised of dancers and some of their parents, came together. We all met at BlockOn, a dance school in Kichijoji. This year we went on a trip together. Mayu goes to an English-speaking school, and we talk to each other mostly in English. Miho can understand a lot of English, but she hasn't used the language much in years, so she prefers to speak Japanese. Aoi is in elementary school now, and I think it is a good experience for her to be surrounded by multiple languages. She can experience the importance of communication first-hand, and in this case between her friends and mom. It's fine with me if my Japanese friends don't speak much English, because I'll just speak Japanese with them, but at the same time it's nice when people realize there's value to be found in a foreign language and decide to learn one.

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Our last stop Monday afternoon was at a French-style tiered waterfall, フランス式階段流路. If you're looking for a picnic or stealth camping spot in the woods, this is your ticket. It's a short drive from central Matsumoto but is remote enough to be quiet and is small enough to lack on-site staff.

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On Tuesday morning, we went to the Chausuyama Zoo (茶臼山動物園) in Nagano City. Generally speaking I don't like zoos much, but if the animals are well-treated and otherwise hard to find, that's good too. If you're looking for cute factor, this zoo should top your list. We saw red pandas. Many of them. Sleeping in trees, and walking around, and running around. Indoors, outdoors, and directly overhead. As if that wasn't enough — and it should be, because red pandas are awesome — a trio of lions — a mom and two cubs — was playing tag, except that mom didn't really want to play. She found a spot to lie down, but then the kids got boring, and they pounced on her, and she got up and chased them. And then that repeated itself a bunch of times.

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In the afternoon we went to see the Matsushiro Underground Imperial Headquarters (松代大本営跡), an underground tunnel network that was partly excavated just before the end of World War II. On the way home, we went to Ringonoyu (りんごの湯), an apple-themed bath house. The place's shtick is that they put dozens of apples in the baths. You're not supposed to eat the apples, I don't think you'd want to try, and it doesn't really seem to do much. But it looks neat, and the bath was nice.

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Wednesday we packed up and headed east. The main activity of the day was an adventure course with zip lining, Tarzan swings, and ropes between trees high off the ground at a place called Sweet Grass Adventure (スィートグラスアドベンチャー). If you've never done this kind of thing before, Sweet Grass Adventure is a good place to start. Betsy and Dex and I did zip lining on a large scale in Costa Rica several years back, and nothing here was new to me. Still, the place was well-designed, the weather was good, and it was fun to go on the course with Aoi and Mayu.

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We stopped by a large farmer's market and got some fresh vegetables. I also picked up several kinds of jam: blueberry, rhubarb, apple, and gooseberry. Of those, the blueberry is the best. That part of Nagano and Gunma has a reputation for its fruit and vegetables, and in my observation deservedly so. We got back to Tokyo late in the evening. Tomorrow, back to school.