That being the case, we definitely need to work for at least another hour today, but first we decided we needed a change of scenery (metaphorically speaking), and so we return to our travel log.
On Saturday, we went to Kitsune Mura, or the Fox Village. The original plan was to go to the wild monkey park in Jigokudani, but the winter has been warm and there wasn't any snow there. Kyoya said he really wanted us to see the snow, and I think there was a comment made about how the monkeys might not show up (or at least wouldn't go in the hot springs) unless there was snow. So in the interest of seeing animals and snow, we changed course and went up north to Zao, to the Fox Village!
As I mentioned yesterday, we met at McDonald's at 6:30 in the morning. Kyoya arrived first and messaged us to let us know he was there just as we were heading out the door. Fortunately, it was only about a three minute walk, so we didn't keep him waiting long. Soon, more of Kyoya's friends arrived, and he introduced us but we only managed to catch a couple of names. This is where it really hit home that Japanese people talk a lot faster in real life than they do in anime. And that's saying something, because they can talk pretty fast in anime. But anyway, Kyoya did make sure we knew that one of his friends makes CDs. The friend clarified by saying he makes CD dramas geared at women, so he only works with male seiyuu. Then he said something to Kyoya, who responded with, "No, I'm too expensive."
There were ten people total and two cars. Since we were new to the group, it was decided that we would go in Kyoya's car, and everybody else did jan-ken to decide who all else would be in which car. There were three other fluent English speakers, and they all ended up in the other car, but that was good because it gave us a chance to practice our conversational Japanese. The other girl who ended up in our car was fairly outgoing, too, which helped. It also helped that she's a fan of otome games, so we spent a good deal of time talking about Uta no Prince-sama and Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time. It was fun. It was also nice to look out over the Japanese landscape, because it's so much different than Southern California. They have so many trees! Southern California is a desert, so you're either driving through cities or looking at barren land...wait, that's not entirely true. There's been irrigation, so there's a bunch of farmland, too, but we have more brush than trees. There was farmland in Japan, too, but again, it was different, and it was fascinating. I didn't take pictures, though, even though I thought about it. Not sure why. But anime reflects it pretty accurately, so there you go.
The drive was also made easier by the fact that Kyoya had an iPad hooked up to the dashboard with plenty of anime loaded onto it. We almost watched Ano Natsu de Matteru from start to finish, although that was the ride up when we were all talking, so I'm not sure how much attention anyone paid to it. Another amusing thing about the ride up, at one point Kyoya said, "And they're twins, by the way," at which point the other two passengers said, "Ooooh! I thought they looked alike, but I was afraid I just couldn't tell white people apart." XDDD
After a drive that didn't feel like four hours, we arrived at the Fox Village, where the other driver opened up a big bulk box of hand warmers and started passing them out. This was the first time we discovered the wonder that is the hand warmer. At first, they didn't seem so great; they took a long time to heat up, and they weren't really all that warm. It wasn't until later, when I put my cold hands in my pockets after forgetting all about it, that I realized how magical they truly are.
But anyway, this story is about foxes! We went through the entrance and paid admission, and the sweet lady said DO NOT reach out to touch the foxes. This warning was repeated by signs inside the village that said there was a one HUNDRED percent chance the foxes would bite you, and included a fun illustration of a fox chomping down on a human hand. It was neat.
As for the village itself, first you come into an area with a bunch of little enclosures, kind of like a mix between a zoo and a kennel (by which I mean the enclosures were too big for a kennel but too small for a zoo). I think that's where they kept the foxes that weren't ready to hang out in the regular Fox Village. There's also a little enclosure filled with ADORABLE BUNNY RABBITS. But we kind of ignored it because today we were there for foxes! And so we looked at some of the caged foxes, and then we went out onto the Trail.
The Trail goes through a much larger enclosure that is pretty much just full of snow and foxes. And little house thingies, which the foxes mostly slept under. It was like a fairy tale, where you go to a village and all the people living there are foxes, only they weren't anthropomorphic or talking, just regular wild foxes. And they had a shrine to Inari, because duh what other kind of shrine are you going to have in a fox village? (Inari is a fox deity, in case anybody didn't know.) On this day, most of the foxes were curled and asleep, and they were just like big kitty cats with bushy tails and fox faces! They had red foxes and black foxes and white foxes, and it was very difficult to resist the urge to pet them. But those signs were very clear.
Speaking of fox bites. One of Kyoya's friends (the one who makes CDs) decided to be bold and, instead of reaching out to pet the fox, he put his phone on a selfie stick to get a super close-up. He showed us the pictures later, and he did get a close-up...of inside the fox's mouth. Those warnings really weren't kidding. (He also got some pretty sweet close-ups of the fox's face, too.)
Of course you can't have a village where you go hang out with foxes and not offer tourists the opportunity to feed them. You can buy food at the front, or at the feeding area, which is a cabin-like structure on stilts, to keep everybody high enough above the foxes to keep them safe. You can go out onto the deck and toss food at them, which makes for some very fun photo ops, because the really skilled foxes would jump up and catch the food midair! But the foxes were pretty mean to each other, and the competition was pretty fierce. So we also got to see some fox fights!
Later, we walked down a trail that was some distance from the feeding area, and it was full of foxes that all seemed very...tired. It was speculated that they were the "loser" foxes who weren't so good at catching food. But we're pretty sure the fox keepers make sure they all get enough to eat.
When we were done hanging out there, we went to a special area where you can pay a little extra to hold a fox for three minutes. And boy did we ever want to do that! Gaston and Alice went on a cruise to Mexico a while back, and Gaston told us about how there was a place where you could get your picture taken with a lion, and he thought, "You can be the guy who gets his picture taken with a lion, or you can be the guy who doesn't. I want to be the guy who gets his picture taken with a lion." And we were so jealous! But he said we were the first people he told that to who didn't ask if he was crazy. No way, man, that's totally awesome and I want to do it!
But for now, we got to hold a fox, which in a way is better, because they wouldn't have let us hold a lion, because even the cub was too big (it was kind of an older cub, though). So now we got to hold a full-grown fox, and it was beautiful and red and soft...and resigned. Poor little guy. He's not a domesticated animal, after all...well, technically he is, in a way, but the point is he has to deal with tourists holding him all day. But we're really grateful that he let us, because it was really nice. The bushy tails actually aren't very soft at all, but the ears are! (We were allowed to touch anywhere on the fox behind its face.) And Kyoya took about a million pictures, but my camera refused to work at one point (I didn't realize the battery was getting low, and I think it doesn't like working in the cold), so I might have to go steal some pictures from his Facebook. But I did get some! Just not any of either of us holding the fox.
Then we went to the gift shop, which was full of adorable fox merchandise! We had to buy something to remember our trip by, but it was so hard to decide what! Ultimately, we decided on a couple of plushes, because plush toys are kind of a thing for us. But by the time we bought them, our whole group was leaving! Oh no!
Of course, they waited for us outside. We took some group pictures, including one of us at the entrance doing the transformation gesture you see in cartoons like Naruto.
After that, it was time for lunch, and we went to a local restaurant called Tamago-Ya. Anyone who knows Japanese will not be surprised that their whole menu consists of egg dishes. Fortunately for us, that included french toast. With ice cream! And oh, it was sooo good. But I think I mostly liked the maple syrup the best. Some of our friends got a Japanese meal with rice that came with a raw egg for you to mix in. Kyoya was talking about it on the way there (mostly to his other friend--not that he meant to leave us out, but we were only half paying attention because we were taking in our surroundings and reflecting on the events so far, etc.) and said something about how all his American friends look at him like he's crazy when he talks about eating raw eggs. But apparently it's a thing in pretty much every country except the United States, so it makes me wonder what we're doing wrong...
Not that I'm interested in eating raw eggs, mind you. They seem kind of slimy and gross. Anyway, another friend (an American staying at a military base in Yokosuka) recommended the tamagoyaki, and since it does seem to be such a staple in manga, and probably didn't have too many ingredients, we thought this would be a good opportunity to try it. ...And there was some flavor in it that we Did Not care for. Probably soy sauce. We could get used to it, but in smaller doses at first, and we prefer good old salt. Fortunately, we had our french toast to make it better.
And! we ordered a parfait. All the desserts had fairy tale names, and we got the Rainbow Wizard Parfait. It had ice cream and baumkuchen and purin/pudding/flan/custard and cornflakes. I don't know what it is, but just about every parfait we came across (we looked at a lot of menus) had cornflakes. But you know? It works. And the parfait was yummy, too!
We still had time after lunch, so Kyoya asked the waitress for advice on what else we could see, and she got a copy of a map of Zao and highlighted some places. First, we went to the Zao Cheese Factory...or something like that. They had a Cheese House and a Cheese Cabin and...something. I don't remember exactly, but my camera was working again, so I have pictures of the outside. Anyway, they were stores, and one of them had a bunch of different flavored cheese spreads out to try. I think we tried the orange one, and Athena tried the vanilla, and they were pretty good. We might have bought some, but we weren't sure about traveling with perishable food. But we did buy a plush cow. We also got an owl keychain and a kokeshi phone charm, because apparently Zao has some history with kokeshi dolls.
Across the little parking lot, there was a produce store. All our friends had already gone in and come out eating persimmons. We went in, too, because we were following Kyoya, and he found some mushrooms he wanted to buy. So the guy running the store said, "You're leaving tonight? Here, take these leeks." Then he grabbed a pear and a knife and started slicing it, and he walked right up to Athena and handed her a slice. And she took it and thought, "We better get out of here before he hands me something I can't bring myself to eat." But the pear was pretty good, and it didn't have that disgusting aftertaste that the pear Jelly Bellies have.
We went outside to take more pictures, and the produce guy came out and tossed Kyoya some more vegetables to take home. That guy clearly loves sharing his produce with people! He was awesome.
Next, we went to the kokeshi museum. For those of you who don't know (and we wouldn't have known, either, if we hadn't translated First Love Monster), a kokeshi is a kind of wooden doll. Here, have a Wikipedia article. The museum had lots and lots of kokeshi, and a lot of them were very cute! There was a display of all the tools used in making them, and there was even a workshop where you could see an artisan at work! Except he was on break when we got there. There were also some tables covered in kokeshi dolls that some local fourth graders had painted as part of a field trip. The idea was to put a smile on people's faces, and I think they succeeded, because the dolls were adorable.
At the gift shop, they also had a table with wooden games, which was a really neat look into the kinds of toys and games they had in the olden days. There was kendama, and GIANT kendama, and a ring toss, and a thing where you stack up a bunch of cylinders and try to knock one cylinder out of the stack with a mallet without knocking the tower down. And tops with ropes, where you're supposed to wind the rope around the top and then throw it to get it to spin. Members of our group kept trying and failing to do it, so eventually, they spun it by hand and threw the rope at it so Kyoya could get a doctored photo. At that point, the lady working at the gift shop came along to show us how it was done...and failed her first attempt. But she got it on the second try, and we were all very impressed. We were starting to worry about our funds at this point, but we managed to find a little kokeshi that was very pretty for not very many yen. That made me happy, because I really wanted to buy one.
We took some more group pictures at the entrance to the museum, and then we went to the hot springs! We didn't go in because we weren't ready for that kind of thing, but this particular hot spring place had a nice lounge that we could relax in while we waited for the rest of our party. It had a really cool vending machine with an elevator for the glass bottles, and when another member of our party told us how cool it was, we had to go check it out. So we got some fruit milk and it was sooooooo good. I wish we had it in America. Maybe in some import stores...
After everyone had relaxed for a while, we went to fill up the car's gas tank and CD Man bought some Pocky and potato chips to snack on as we made the drive back south. He put them on the thing between the driver and front passenger seats, so they got knocked around a lot. If something fell out of the package onto the car floor, the other girl riding with us would say, "Ah, shinda! (Oh! It's dead!)", and we found that to be very fun and amusing, but still sad when a snack died. (When we recovered them from the floor, she called them corpses.)
We started looking at our fox plushes, and Nozomi (her codename is her favorite Haruka miko) asked what we were going to name them. The one stand-alone fox would be Kokkuri-san, and they were like, "That could be good. ...Yeah, that could be really good!" And the two hugging foxes would be Tomoe and Nanami. Nozomi asked if we meant Nanami from UtaPri, and we said no, Nanami from Kamisama Kiss. She wasn't familiar with that one (of course we called it "Kamisama Hajimemashita"), so we told her it was in Hana to Yume, and then she asked, "Wasn't there an anime about Kokkuri-san, too?" And we said yes! because we love that one. The title rang a bell, so we helped jog her memory by singing part of the opening theme, and then CD Man commented about how we'd probably be a lot of fun at karaoke. And I was like, "Based on that?" and that's another reason I think we must have some kind of...whatever I called it when I was talking about the brass band at the Arabian Coast. He also commented on how amazed he was that we knew so much about anime when we didn't live in Japan. We only have the internet to thank for that. (Later in the trip, Cecille would start talking about all kinds of things we'd never heard of, so I was like, "We don't even know anything!" On the other hand, when we tried to find something that she'd seen with Nobuhiko Okamoto that she had seen, we came up with zilch, and we were like, "How is this possible? He's in everything!" So really, everyone has their own sphere of knowledge.)
Somewhere along the road to Tokyo was a little restaurant called...I'm not sure what it was called, but it claimed to have the best gyoza in all Japan. It even had a bunch of celebrity signatures on the walls, indicating that it really was good enough for these people to come out of their way to eat their gyoza. And what did we order? French fries. I think this is the most disappointing food decision we made on our whole trip. But we are not the types to push ourselves, so we have no regrets on that one. It had been a long day and we were tired, so we didn't have the energy to try new foods, and we had already eaten something that was pretty far outside our food comfort zones. And come to think of it, I don't remember anybody commenting on the quality of the gyoza... But there was a cheese-filled gyoza that the Americans said was weird. (This place had twelve different kinds of gyoza, and you could order a sample platter with one of each.)
Then it was back in the car, where we watched Chihayafuru on the way back to Tokyo, where we all parted ways. Kyoya of course told us to come to Japan more often--he makes a road trip like this about once a month, and seriously next time consider staying in my house instead of a hotel--it's free. It's true, that would save us a lot of money on our next trip. On the other hand, it was really nice being in the heart of Ikebukuro... Well, that decision won't have to be made for a while, because we have work up the wazoo.
Today I'm thankful for making fairly good progress on work today, getting to go to the Fox Village, getting to go to the Kokeshi Museum, getting to go to the lovely Tamago-Ya restaurant, and having a really good time with Kyoya and his friends.