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If you've got extra miles and points, here's a perfect place to spend them this holiday season. This free, non-profit effort from Colorado Springs-based Frequent Flyer Services facilitates the donation of miles, points and awards for charitable use worldwide.
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Last week we left off in beautiful Kinosaki, Japan. This week we slowly make our way to Kyoto, in hopes of meeting a real-life geisha or maiko (I am on an exclusive "Memoirs of a Geisha” tour).
Leaving Kinosaki, we got picked up in a phat new van. This thing was sweet! It had soft red velvet seats that could swivel around, making for a congenial atmosphere. A few of us hung out in the back and shared travel stories, while we admired the picturesque scenery passing by. Thirty minutes into the trip we made our first stop: Stork Park in Toyooka City. We were there to check out their 118 wild Oriental white storks. They are an endangered species, with supposedly only 2,000 remaining worldwide. This is a peaceful place for storks (and visitors) to roam around in. What’s great about this place -- besides the many acres of lush grounds -- is that the workers help the storks breed, then reintroduce them back into the wild. Admission is free, and they are closed Mondays. For more information, check out the official Hyogo Prefecture (jurisdiction) Homeland Oriental white Stork website at stork.u-hyogo.ac.jp. Warning: Like most Japanese websites, there is no English button, and web translators don’t work for this site.
The storks were amazing creatures and I am glad I got to see them. But I’m not a big bird watcher, and after 15 minutes I was ready to hit the road. We were there for at least an hour, though, before jumping back on the bus. Our next stop, 30 minutes down the road, was Izushi town. I could’ve spent a lot more time there. Izushi town is famous for three things: the Izushi Castle, the Shinko Ro Tower, and Izushi Soba (buckwheat noodles). The Castle is built on a hill, with 37 bright red torii gates leading to a shrine. The Shinko Ro Tower is located near the main castle gate, and is regarded as the symbol of Izushi. These are both nice to see, but we were there for one reason: to eat the local specialty. These cold, thin buckwheat noodles are typically served on five (count ‘em) tiny Izushi ware dishes. They come with a sweet soy sauce, and a raw egg to make for a tasty dipping sauce. There are many places to get these popular noodles, because Izushi has 50 soba restaurants. Some even offer cooking classes, so you can make your own soba at home. We ate lunch at the highly regarded Sara Soba. The cost was 850 yen ($8.50). Don’t just eat and run -- make sure to walk around the cute town, and check out the shops. Everyone is super-friendly.
Just in case you want to see what a Japanese McDonald’s looks like, here are a couple of pictures (the bold blue links in this paragraph). I know what you’re thinking: What a pathetic American tourist, going to McDonald’s overseas. I couldn’t agree with you more. I hate to see American fast food chains on foreign ground (actually I hate to see them in most places, except when I’m starving on the highway). But I was at this one for a good reason. We were driving two hours to Miyamacho, and our tour guide asked if anyone needed a bathroom break. Of course everyone raised their hands (it must have been all the sake at lunch). You know where we pulled over. And you probably guessed that someone in our group waiting around for the bathroom had to order French fries for everyone to experience. I’m ashamed to say I had one (okay, 20). And they were darn good.
We arrived in Miyamacho (also known as Miyama Town), which is famous for its thatched houses. There are over 250 in this area -- more than any other place in Japan. Miyama means "beautiful mountain,” which is fitting because this place is located in the mountains of the Kyoto Prefecture. Our first stop was to visit an important Japanese architectural heritage site, the village of Kita. It has the biggest concentration of thatched roofs in Miyama: 32 out of 50 houses are thatched. These things are pretty cool, though I wouldn’t want to live in one. The oldest house was built in 1796, so there is plenty of history here. If you want to learn more and see what life is like on the inside stop by The Miyama Kayabuki Art Museum. They’ve got everything from old farming tools to paintings with Miyama themes. Admission is 500 yen ($5).
That night we checked into Hotel Kajikaso. Kajikaso is 1,000 feet in the mountains, alongside the tranquil Yura River. From the outside you would swear you were in Vermont, and inside it looks and feels like a ski lodge. But then you walk into your room. BANG -- another Japanese-style inn! That’s right: a minimalist room with white walls, tatami (straw carpet), a very low table, a couple of pillows to sit on, a TV with bad reception, and a large window. I didn’t even bother asking where the bed was, because I knew it would mysteriously appear after dinner. The rooms here don’t have bathrooms, though I was fortunate to have a sink in my room (most didn’t). Using the facilities required a walk down the hallway, to both a western and Japanese-style toilet (a hole in the ground). Don’t forget to put on your bathroom slippers (in the middle of the night, that’s difficult to remember). Breakfast, dinner (you better like seafood) and use of the hot springs are included in the room rates.
GOING TO SLEEP
There was no entering the wrong bath at this place, because both the men’s and women’s spas are clearly marked. Both also have an indoor and outdoor hot spring (the water temperature was 104). After my hot, relaxing and uneventful bath, I returned to my room only to find nothing had changed – there was no sign of a bed. At the last inn, when I came back from my bath the furniture (a table) in my room was pulled to the side, and my bed was laid out in the middle of the floor. Fortunately, the walls at this place are super thin so my when my neighbor (and colleague) heard me panic (I must’ve been talking out loud, perhaps even swearing), I heard a loud, disgusted voice say, "Johnny Jet, stop your whining and open your closet door. Pull out your bed (a futon), your little bean bag pillows, your sheet and comforter, and make your bed like everyone else.” I froze with my mouth open and thought, "Damn, am I that high maintenance?” Then I realized she was just giving me attitude to get back for playing a trick on her when we first arrived (it’s a long story, but it was hilarious).
Making my bed took 45 seconds. I gotta say, it was surprisingly comfortable. When I was done I said out loud "arigato” (thank you), then turned out the light. As I lay on my back looking out the window at the bright stars and full moon, listening to the trees dance in the wind and the Yura river flow nearby, I heard my neighbor through the wall make up some crazy Japanese sentence that even I knew didn’t make sense. I asked, "What the heck is that supposed to mean?” She said,"Just like on the old Waltons TV show, ‘Good night John Boy.’” It was fitting, because with the surreal setting I almost felt like I was in a performance. So when I said "ah, sank u berry much,” I wasn’t just talking to her.
Next week: Kyoto! *Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!
Dennis P. Kamoen