Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Nina, The Pinta, and the Santa Wasabi

Today was an eventful day.

Up early and over to Pure Water Hill High, where I participated as an interviewer for the STEP Test, an English proficiency exam that a lot of junior high and high school students take. I conducted the Pre-1st Grade Interview Test, which is the second most difficult level, behind...you guessed it...First Grade.

Personally, I don't like the use of the word "grade" because it sounds too much like elementary school when you talk about the tests. Just nitpicking, though. Like I always do.

The test was divided into two sessions, the morning session and the afternoon session. There were a total of around 330 students interviewing for the Pre-1st, 2nd, Pre-2nd, and 3rd Grade tests. Most teachers were interviewing around 20-30 students. I had to interview a total of...(drum roll, please)...4 students!

And one didn't even show up!

So I interviewed all of three students and was done within half an hour. And the rewards were...well, let's just say that I wish my regular job paid an hourly wage as good as the one I got today.

I even got a free lunch! Life was gooooooood this morning.

And it got even better in the afternoon.

I hopped in Wasabi-kun and set off exploring (hence the title). Since I've done most of my exploring to the east of Muroran (Sapporo, Mukawa, Cape Erimo), I decided to "Go West". Life is peaceful there, after all.

I headed over to Lake Toya. Lake Toya is a caldera lake located about an hour's drive from Muroran. It is allegedly one of the clearest lakes in Japan. I can neither confirm nor deny this claim.

I took Rt. 37 west from Muroran, through Date, and then turned north and headed up into the hills toward Lake Toya. On the way, I stopped off by Showa Shinzan (translation: the new mountain of the Showa period).

Now, Showa Shinzan is an interesting volcano. Apparently, until about 1943, the area where Showa Shinzan is now located was a rice field. Flat, low-lying, rice-raising...very non-volcano-like. Then, one day, the field started to rise up. Earthquakes accompanied by a gradually rising area. Then, in 1944, the eruptions began, destroying fields, railroad tracks, and houses. Geologic activity with the mountain continued until 1945.

Here's the interesting thing, though. The military covered it up. That's right. They didn't let anybody know that a volcano was forming during the middle of World War II. I don't know the reasoning behind it, but according to one of the signs at the mountain, that's what happened. The longer I'm here, the more the Japanese military's activities during World War II freak me out. The Rape of Nanking and experiments on human subjects with biochemical weapons are fairly well known. There was also the forced relocation of Okinawans in southern Okinawa to an island that was known to have rampant malaria. Lots of people died needlessly. Very sad story. But then, the whole WWII Okinawa story is an incredibly sad story any way you look at it. Seen as the enemy by the U.S., yet not seen as Japanese by the Japanese, the Okinawans were trapped between military powers, and they paid dearly for it.

But the fact that the military covered up a volcano forming...wow. I really don't know how to react to that one.

After checking out Showa Shinzan (which is continuously smoking), I headed on down in to the Lake Toya area. My main goal was to hit the hot springs in Lake Toya. I hadn't been to a hot spring for quite a while, and I felt like it was time to go. Besides, the place I wanted to go to had a hot spring in a cave, according to the sign out front. This is where I should have been cautious. Yet, I still went in. At the main desk of the hotel with the "cave" hot spring, as I was paying my entry fee, I looked over at a sign and saw some words that made me shudder.

"no yoh na"

Loosely translated, this means "like". So, since the sign said, "dohkutsu(cave) no yoh na", this meant that the hot spring that I had been so excited to hop into was all a lie. It was "like" a cave. It was a shallow representation of a cave hot spring. Devastating. It was actually a pretty nice bath, though, and the "cave" part did seem "like" a cave, so I guess you couldn't really get these guys for false advertising.

A quick note on the area where I live: Japan, as a country, is one of the most geologically active places on the planet. Earthquakes happen all the time. There are active volcanoes all across the country. There are also lots of hot springs, which means lots of geothermal energy. Muroran, where I live, is bordered on the west (25 miles to the west) by the active volcano Mt. Usu (more on this later), and bordered on the east (30 miles to the east) by the active (and nearly ready to pop, according to a lot of scientists) volcano Mt. Tarumae. To the south is the ocean, but this is actually a bay that was formed by a volcanic eruption. In fact, it's known as the Eruption Bay.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is, I really know how to pick places to live.

So, after my geothermal-powered hot spring bath, I hopped back in Wasabi-kun and headed south toward one of the craters of Mt. Usu, which last erupted in 2000. There are some places around the volcano's craters that are preserved as hiking trails. You can walk right up close to the still-smoking craters and see some of the damage that the 2000 eruption (and the 1977 eruption) inflicted on the area. You can see buildings that were damaged or destroyed, and you can see how the land changed after the eruptions.

Mother Nature is not one to be trifled with.

Unfortunately, the hiking paths are closed for the winter, so when spring rolls around (which apparently is sometime in June) I'll head back and hike around. Even though the path was closed off, the entrance was close to a kindergarten that was damaged by the eruption. It's still there, and it is a very creepy place, even in the daytime.

Also, I found out that one of my students lives near Mt. Usu, and just before she was sent to enter junior high school, the volcano erupted and destroyed her house. Pretty crazy stuff. Rocks crashed down through the roof and destroyed her family's piano. Ash and mud coated everything. But her school uniform was still in its plastic packing, so she was okay there.

It was weird to have her talk about it so matter-of-factly in class.

Then it was on through Date again, on my way back to Muroran. Before I headed back home, I swung by Usu Zenkoji Temple. It is a really beautiful temple right near the Usu Fishing Port. I was able to catch a bit of the sunset, and then walk around the temple grounds. It was nice and calm, and I really enjoyed it there.

Then I drove back home.

Altogether, a really nice day.

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