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Treasure hunt in Oshima

A few weeks ago I went to a semi-annual corporate camp with my company. Every half a year we take off to some countryside to discuss the strategy and upcoming plans for the future. Our schedule is usually filled with long brain storms and presentations followed by nomikai (dinner party) and sports activities for the second day. However, this time it was entirely all about leisure and as much as I tried to resist it, I had a lot of fun and really enjoyed spending time with my co-workers.

Every time, we choose a new place for our camp so our destination for the summer 2010 gasshuku was Oshima island – 4 hour ferry trip away from Tokyo bay.

Oshima is the biggest out of Izu islands and is mostly famous for Tsubaki (Red Camellia flowers) and Mihara volcano.  Our hotel “Tsubaki” was old but situated right in the middle of the island making it the perfect base camp for the treasure hunt game that our interns spent months planning.

We were all separated into 8 teams, 6 people in each – 1 navigator, 1 informer and 4 brains. Every team received a booklet with 30 quizzes and a map of the island. Whenever a brain member solves a quiz, navigator leads the team to the revealed location somewhere on the island and then an informer sends a tweet with a secret code inside each treasure to the control point where it is checked and rated (first team that solves the quiz and finds the treasure gets 10 points, second 5 and third 3 points. After that the quiz is closed.)

So, since I can’t read map and no way can I compete with an average Japanese girl in fast texting, I was left the role of a brain. I managed to solve the first quiz almost immediately and it triggered our entire operation. Instead of taking our time like other teams to solve at least couple of quizzes and create a plan for our moves, we dashed to the first treasure which was on the other side of the island. I had to keep solving other quizzes on the run almost the entire day.

We practically never stopped to just sit down and think.  It was +35 outside and lots of hills. By the end of the day we couldn’t feel our legs but were so damn proud to have solved 8 quizzes ahead of other teams and 12 others in the second and third places. My team scored 470 points and took the first prize. I had never in my entire life used at the same time my brain and muscles this much. ^-^

Here is one of the quizzes I couldn’t manage to solve. If you happen to come up with an answer – you’re gonna be my personal hero!

89 ・77・62・40・35 = LOVE

68・62・44・35・30・16・12 = FRIEND

82・63・42・26・21・3 = ?

I tried to multiply 3×0 and 4×0 respectively in each sequence to get 0 and eliminate an extra number, making the amount of numbers equal to the amount of letters but that’s all I could come up with…

On the second day, we rented out a local school’s gym and played various スポーツ大会 games like jumping with the rope or running with our legs tied.

Each of the games of course came with an intellectual twist, like if you know the answer to the question you can join your team and move to the next round.

It’s amazing what you can do with a child’s game if you add a little meaning into it. I’m really amazed at the amount of work that was put into creating each activity.

On our way back, we took a ferry boat and had a little picnic on the deck, drinking beer and watching the sea. It was one of the best corporate camps I have ever had and it really made me look forward to its winter version. ^-^

海の日

I have been meaning to write about it for a long time, ever since I got it – my driving license!

I went to a Japanese driving school here in Tokyo and studied for two months to get it. It was a lot of fun because I got to drive brand new Mazda and then BMW for highway training. I also scored an absolute 100% during the paper test, something to be proud of since it’s written in a bad bad English..

Right before going back to Russia I got my international license too and then tried driving in St.Petersburg with the left steering wheel. This is me in my mom’s car driving to dacha on a rough Russian unpaved road – what an experience!

This is me driving my brother’s car to my nephew’s birthday to a countryside in the rain. How cool is that? By the way, my very first training drive in the city was at night in a heavy rain. I couldn’t see a thing but my instructor was so calm so it did the trick on me and I drove for two hours around Setagaya-ku without any troubles.

Then, a week ago was my very first independent long distance drive to 90 Kurihama beach, this time of course with the steering wheel on the right which is much more comfortable since I was trained using it.

I took Shonan highway and even managed to overtake a couple of cars in front of me that were too slow. ^-^ I have to wear beginner’s mark on my car for a year. My husband says it’s embarrassing but I kinda like that everyone is giving me a way. ^-^

It was my first time to go to 90 Kurihama beach and I was pleasantly surprised to find it clean and sandy and not crowded at all.

The water was still a bit too cold to swim in but the season is opened so next week I am planning to go to the beach again with my friends and even get some tan.

This time I burned badly loosing track of time over Haruki Murakami’s “The wild sheep chase” but because the damage is done, next time is gonna be much better. ^-^

After the beach we drove around for a while and saw many windmills along the road. Shonan is going green and that is so cool seeing all these eco efforts in action, such a long way to go for Russia..

Our last stop was the lighthouse at the cape. If you stand on the hill facing the sea you supposedly can see that the earth is not flat. That is what the place is famous for. We didn’t go up to the top of the lighthouse because it was too crowded. Instead, I chose to spend time walking around the cape, watching waves hitting the rocks and disappearing among the pebbles on the beach.  It’s a beautiful place if you scratch the touristy side of it. ^-^

Patagonia state of mind – part 3. Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales

28th of December was the official beginning of our trip to Patagonia. Naturally, we have started on its Chilean part since our first stop was Santiago.

A trip down South to Punta Arenas took us a few hours. The flight was great – many people complain about LAN airlines and indeed, buying tickets online was a major headache but the plane and the service and the trip itself were more than a pleasant experience.

We got Havanna lunchbox as a refreshment snack. Havanna is an Argentinian confectionery famous for its Alfajores – chocolate pies with dulce de leche (caramel cream) inside. It was so delicious we couldn’t help but stock on them on our last day in Buenos Aires and then ordered some extra on ebay a week later. ^-^

By the time we landed in Punta Arenas international airport it was raining. When you travel in a bad weather in a foreign country without all the logistics fully booked, your survival instinct takes over and makes you go for the fastest way that can guarantee your safe arrival to the haven of a hotel. That is exactly what happened to us. Instead of trying to find a bus that would take us directly to Puerto Natales, we let the local taxi drivers convince us that going to the center of Punta Arenas is the only way to catch a bus back North. Only after our colectivo – a minivan taxi took off and made a run towards highway, I saw a big tourist bus approaching the airport with its destination plate that read “Puerto Natales”.  But, the short taxi ride to the center was cheap and gave us a great opportunity to see the city so I am not complaining. ^-^

Punta Arenas is the capital of Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena Region and one of the biggest settlements in that area.  It is located on the strait of Magellan and is the ultimate astral destination in our entire trip. The area, besides being a major connection port is mainly famous for its tours to penguin colonies. Every spring Magellan penguins come to their place of breed so if you are traveling in December – you have a great chance of spotting them along the shore.

After a nice lunch at a local sandwich shop and my second South American milkshake, we boarded a bus and started our 4 hour trip to Puerto Natales (250 km from PA). On our way, we saw nothing but this – a never-ending land of dry grass, mountain shadows on the horizon and low, heavy sky – an amazing nothingness that is absolutely grandeur and breathtaking.

Puerto Natales is the capital of Última Esperanza (Last hope) province and is the main transit point for everyone going to Torres Del Paine national park. The city or rather a village is tiny but has everything you need – supermarkets, banks, souvenir shops, travel agents, post, hospital etc. Be careful with the ATM machines though as they often run out of cash especially on weekends but never fail to charge your credit card for the full amount.

Our hotel – Indigo Patagonia was the very first thing I have found when researching the trip. The address read : 51° 43′ 39” Southern Latitude Puerto Natales, Patagonia. I have never before been to anywhere that would define its location with the angular distance to the center of the Earth. That was super cool and it made me immediately fall in love with the whole end of the world concept for the trip. At that time I was still deciding between Patagonia and Morocco for the honeymoon so thanks to the Indigo, the astral destination took over.

Indigo’s architect Sebastián Irarrázaval implemented intricate design elements into the simple, natural setting of a log house creating a visual and physical comfort you can’t get away from.

The rooms were distributed around a huge central space divided by a vertical curtain made of eucalyptus. All corridors were connected through a system of bridges and ramps making you feel like a wooden creature inside the trunk of  a big tree.

The rooms have no TV or mini bars to welcome the use of public spaces and social communication between the guests and locals.

Our room had a view on fjord of Last hope.  I used to watch it through a web cam months prior to the trip. In the evenings, the sunsets were gorgeous. You can watch it here : http://www.indigopatagonia.com/live-indigo-web-cam/

The room was simple but had everything you need, including spa products of highest quality.

Upon our arrival, we had our free cocktails in the lounge area and then went for a little walk along the shore of fjord.

The city landscape was quite remarkable considering its size and population. I mean it even had some forms of art here and there popping in the least expected places.

This is my favorite spot in the entire Puerto Natales. It used to be some sort of bridge or mooring but now harbors only seagulls and flamingos. I framed this picture in black and white and put it on the wall right next to my iMac at home. Every time I am working and need a minute to rest, I look at this tranquility and recall the wind and gray water and heavy clouds of Patagonian sky..I’m so glad that now I have this memory that I can use, whenever I need to go somewhere peaceful in my mind.

That reminds me, I have a theme song for this trip. I stumbled upon it while researching Puerto Natales hotels and Indigo in particular. It was set on loop as a background sound on some travel site. I usually turn all the sounds off but because the song was beautiful I let it pay on and on so eventually it stuck on me. I downloaded it to my iphone and listened to the entire time I was in Patagonia.

In the evening, we had dinner at hotel’s restaurant called Mama Rosa. It was a blend of Italian and Chilean food and everything we ordered was delicious.

As I probably mentioned before, South Americans like to snack while waiting for their  food. This is what you usually get and if the main course takes time to be prepared, you pretty much become full eating anchovy buttered bread and olives.

My crab risotto was great – it had as much crab as it had rice and the flavors were amazing. My husband ordered green ravioli with Parmesan and it was delicious as well.

After a bottle of wine and some cocktails, we went up on the roof to check the spa.

The lounge area was warm and smelled of coniferous branches burning in the stove. The jacuzzi baths outside were quite chilly so I didn’t dare to dip in.

However, after our trip to Paine, I met the challenge face on and stayed the whole 10 minutes or so in a lukewarm water under the unforgiving Patagonian wind. You can probably recognize the pain on my face.

The next entry will be on our trip to Torres Del Paine national park so stay tuned.

Ежик в Hayama

Couple of weeks ago I went to Hayama’s museum of modern art (MOMA http://www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp/en/index.html) to see the exhibit of Russian animator Yury Norshtein. One of his most famous works is my favorite animation “Hedgehog in the fog”.

I watched it every time it was on TV when I was a child. The author used a number of mixed techniques to create his animations – that’s why his works received a lot of attention abroad. I don’t quite understand the meaning behind the story but everyone watching it can sense a lot of hidden messages behind each scene. My friend Rodion – an art critic, could probably write a dissertation on it – no doubt. I personally like it because hedgehog’s mission (to count stars with his friend bear while drinking tea with raspberry jam) is something very close to what we did in my family. Every evening my grandma would make an “evening” tea for me and my baby brother and we would drink it with homemade raspberry jam while chatting or watching cartoons in the living room. Very often it was the “Hedgehog in the fog” that we watched just before going to bed. We used to imitate hedgehog’s moves and repeat his famous phrases and make fun of the parts we didn’t understand interpreting them in our own ways.. The exhibit is over but you can see the animation here :

The museum itself is a very beautiful building sitting right in front of the beach – famous for its surfing crowd.

The season wasn’t opened yet so there was still a lot of construction going on. The beach clubs were preparing their summer houses for the crowds. Next week “Tsuyu” – rainy season is going to be over, that’s when the madness begins.  The density of people on an average Japanese beach during the peak season is same as in the rush hour train arriving to Shibuya station – better be avoided at any cost. However, if you go as far as Hayama (20 minutes by bus from the nearest station) you may get lucky and find a patch of sand that nobody sits on. ^-^

I personally like the beaches with no people whatsoever so I prefer visiting them off season, preferably in winter. ^-^

After Hayama we walked back to Kamakura to see blooming Ajisai and visit an ancient temple called Zuisenji famous for its natural garden.

As always, close to the lunch time my husband started to check famous eating places by using Tabelog service and as usual after spending 40 minutes of searching and failing, we ended up eating some bad soba noodles at some tourist oriented joint.

If you really want to eat good stuff while traveling, your whole schedule should be arranged around the restaurant reservations – otherwise, with endless Japanese crowds you will never find yourself lucky enough to eat what your guidebook recommends to you. ^-^

Although we did get lucky finding a really good Italian gelato. The owner is Italian and he uses only organic stuff to make his ice creams. If you wonder how a beetroot ice cream tastes like, look for Gelateria Il Brigante near Kamakura station.