Making Room to Read

Since June of last year, Toyama AJET has paired with the non-profit Room to Read to build a library in Cambodia.  While AJET’s official involvement with Room to Read is relatively new, I am told that in past years, several ALTs have worked individually on projects with the non-profit.

According to Room to Read’s Website, the organization’s mission is to “transform the lives of millions of children in developing countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education.”  Since 2000, Room to Read has helped build libraries and schools in Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, South Africa, Zambia and Bangladesh.

About two weeks ago, I attended my first charity event to benefit the library AJET hopes to build.  In reading a handout provided by fellow JET Sherilee Kahui, who coordinated the charity auction, I was really struck by the organization’s mission, especially its Girls’ Education program.  This program focuses on providing “long-term, holistic support enabling girls to pursue and complete their secondary education.”  In a world where girls and women are still considered second-class citizens in many countries, that is a noble and lofty ambition that I whole-heartily support.  According to one statistic provided by Room to Read, 42 percent of girls in developing countries are not enrolled in schools, and yet higher education levels often correlate to  lower infant mortality rates and higher wages, as Room to Read notes.

And, as journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue in this wonderful New York Times piece:

In the 19th Century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape…There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.

The charity auction Kahui organized was held at Peace Street Kitchen (富山市総曲輪4丁目10-9), a really wonderful vegetarian restaurant in Toyama City.  In an e-mail, Kahui told me that JETs raised about 25,000 円 (about $306) at the auction. Kahui added that libraries cost around $19,000 (about 1,533,000 円) to build.  Kahui is also organizing a charity pub quiz with two other JETs that will be held at the Brazilian restaurant in Takaoka on November 27.

Toyama Tour: Day Three, The End (Owari)

I woke up at about 7 a.m. to begin our final day of the tour.  In the morning, the hotel served us a traditional Japanese breakfast, which again wasn’t my favorite, but it was definitely interesting to try some of it and to look at the food.

We left the hotel at about 8:30 for Takaoka, the second largest city in Toyama-ken.  We first visited the Zuiryuji Temple, which our tour guide told us is designed to look like a human body in some ways.  According to the Temple’s Website, Zuiryuji Temple is a family temple belonging to the second generation of the Kagahan feudal lord Maeda Tosinaga.  It also “exemplifies the early Zen building model of the Edo period.”

To be honest, the most interesting part about the temple for me wasn’t its history or design, but rather how you felt when you were inside the temple.  We happened to be touring the temple just as a monk was beginning a meditation/blessing service.  He blessed a new mother’s car to keep her and her infant safe from harm.  I thought it was a pretty touching moment.

We then hopped back on the bus to visit Kaiwomaru Park, which is right off Toyama Bay.  I was afraid it might rain and the boat tour would be canceled, but luckily the weather held off.  I love boats and have a strong affinity for water, so this was my favorite part of Day Three.  We hopped on a Shinminato Kankosen boat to view Toyama from the water’s edge.  On the boat, you can buy some chips that seagulls love to eat.  While at sea, you throw the chips at them to see if they can catch them.  Check this video out of one of birds getting a chip:

After the boat ride, we walked around the park and had lunch before taking the bus to AEON Mall.  This was the final destination on our tour.  I don’t know how to describe AEON other than to say it’s a really gigantic mall.  We didn’t have much time to shop, but I browsed through a few stores and we also did purikura (a Japanese photo booth machine that’s really popular with youth).

Must-see: Shinminato Kankosen boat ride. Look at this map to help you get around Imizu.

Travel Tip Three: Just try it!  I am definitely not the most adventurous eater, and that’s likely not going to change as I don’t enjoy puking, but I am generally open to seeing all kinds of new things.  This tour definitely showed me that even if I don’t know the language, things aren’t so scary if you just go for it.  Ganbatte (good luck)!

Day Two: Sunday, Funday

After eating a continental breakfast at the hotel, we drove to the Gokayama Washi no Sato Center to learn how to make washi, or traditional Japanese paper.  I loved this part of the trip and would go here again in an instant.   Incredibly, washi paper is durable for 100 years and is used to make many everyday Japanese items, including sliding screen doors, cushion covers, curtains and lamp shades.  The process of making washi paper took me back to third grade, when my Mom showed me and her other students how to make recycled paper using shredded newspapers.  Of course it’s not the same process, but some of the steps are remarkably similar.

I filmed this video of one of the workers explaining how to make washi paper (trusty CIR Akeem is translating):

If you really want to know more about the paper, I also jotted these notes down from a video we watched about the paper-making process:


In November, kozo shrubs are harvested, tied and put in a water tank.  The steaming process begins in the tank, where the paper is steamed for about three hours.  This process is meant to shrink the bark.  The bark is then peeled, tied in a bundle and left to dry in the sun.  The outer layer of the bark is carefully scraped by hand and then it is exposed to the snow (called snow bleaching).  The bark is boiled for two to three hours and put in a water tank to soften.  After the softening process, the bark is removed of dust by hand.  Workers beat it using a wooden mullet to loosen the fiber.  It is soaked in a special tororo aoi mixture and placed on top of a stand.  It is pressed and dried until 40 percent of moisture is removed.  It is then smoothed on a heated surface by brush and it dries within a few minutes.

Here are the cool postcards I made myself (this is a picture of them drying).  I plan to keep and possibly frame them:

After making washi paper, we toured Gokayama Ainokura, a community of more than twenty historical homes that was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995.  According to the Toyama Prefecture’s Website:

As a community of over twenty households in Taira Village, Ainokura features its architectural structure known as “Gassho-zukuri” (a house with a thatched gable roof, so named because of its shape resembling hands clasped in prayer: “gassho”), steeply sloping at an angle of 60 degrees for protection against heavy snowfall in winter. The village community of these “Gassho-zukuri” houses was recognized for its historic value by the World Heritage Committee and added to the World Heritage List in 1995. The seasonal lifestyle of the households in this community remains unchanged

Our tour guide told us you can rent one out for a night if you really want to experience the culture.  We didn’t spend a whole lot of time around the site because there was a small festival going on nearby.  We caught the middle/end of a traditional dance routine and some of the dancers were kind enough to pose for pictures with us.

For lunch, we stopped by a small restaurant that served local vegetables.  I had some wild mushroom udon soup and also ate a riceball filled with wild mushrooms.  This delicious appetizer was a kind gift from our Gokayama tour guide.  She said she picked the mushrooms herself the night before.


By mid-afternoon, it was time to move on to see the Tonami Tulip Gallery.  The gallery and nearby garden is known for hundreds of tulips that bloom every spring.  Although the outside wasn’t in bloom as it is out of season, we toured the museum to learn about the history of the tulip in Japan and we also saw some beautiful tulips on display.  I definitely want to come back here in the springtime.

Before or after touring the museum, I suggest stopping by the cafe and trying some tulip and Hokkaido vanilla ice cream with a cinnamon cookie.  It was easily some of the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted.  Try not to drool too much as you look at this picture:

As the sun started its slow September descent, we drove to the Fukumitsu Hanayama Onsen Hotel, a traditional Japanese ryokan, or bed and breakfast inn.  The word hanayama roughly means mountain flower, and this ryokan is  in quite a pretty location.  I was easily at my most apprehensive stage at this time because arriving at the hotel meant I would have to try a Japanese onsen.  An onsen, or hot spring bath, sounds comforting but it also involves getting butt naked in front of strangers! That’s not necessarily my favorite thing to do.  But I took a deep breath and soon found myself trying to relax.  Before getting naked in front of strangers, I tried a sand bath, where guests are buried in about a foot of sand (you wear a robe and your face is uncovered, thankfully).  I think this is supposed to be good for your skin and it probably helps your body get rid of toxins since you sweat so much!  It felt relaxing at first but after 15 minutes I had to get up because my heart was racing and I felt like I was going faint.  Lucky for me I still had to experience the naked onsen!

After wiping the sand from my body, I moved toward the onsen area.  You first wash yourself (naked, of course) in showers.  In this particular onsen, you could choose from an indoor onsen or an outdoor one.  I chose the outdoor one, which overlooked the mountains and was really beautiful.  Cynthia, Xue and I ended up talking to a kind woman who had to be in her 80s.  Cynthia, who studied abroad in Japan prior to becoming an ALT, said she thought if onsens were popular in the U.S., people would most likely be more comfortable with their body image.  I agree for the most part, and although I am not dying to go back to one anytime soon, I am definitely glad I tried it.

At the hotel, us girls stayed in a traditional Japanese room with tatami floors and futons and the boys shared a separate room that was similar to our room.  We ate a traditional Japanese meal together for dinner before bedtime.  Some of the food was…interesting.  I honestly couldn’t bear to eat all of it since I have a sensitive stomach (Squid ink??? No thanks!), but the sashimi was tasty and rice here is always excellent.  I tried yellow tail sashimi, a delicacy Toyama is known for, for the first time this night.

Must-see: Gokayama Ainokura World Heritage Site.  Directions (courtesy of this Website): 25 minutes by Kaetsu-no bus for Gokayama from JR Johana Station. Get off at Ainokuraguchi bus stop and walk three minutes.

Travel Tip Two: Ask for English language guides.  Even if you don’t see anything in English when you first arrive at a museum or site, ask if there is an English language brochure or someone who speaks English. Chances are the people at the museum or site will be more than happy to help.  If all else fails, gestures can become your best friend.

Day One: Let’s Begin (Hajimemashou)


After I ate a delicious chocolate bagel at a German Bakery outside of the Toyama JR Station, I met my tour guides and fellow JETs (five Assistant Language Teachers and one Coordinator for International Relations) outside the Toyama Prefectural Government Office in Toyama-shi (Toyama City).  We gave some brief introductions and boarded a comfy bus to begin our journey.

We first traveled to an area just outside the city center of Toyama called Kureha Hills, where there are several museums and spectacular views of Toyama-shi on a clear day.   We stopped by the Toyama Municipal Folkcraft Village first to learn about about the history of Toyama and how it became known as the pharmaceutical capital of Japan.  According to legend, in 1690 (the Edo era of Japan, when Toyama was called Ecchu), Masatoshi Maeda, the president of Toyama Clan, visited the Edo-jo Castle.  Toshisue Akita,  the president of Miharu-jo Castle in nearby Fukushima Prefecture, was also there.  Toshisue-san suddenly became ill with a severe stomach ache.  Masatoshi-san gave him some Toyama medicine called Hankonatan (反魂丹), and Toshisue-san was relieved of his stomach ache almost immediately.  After that, Toyama became known throughout Japan as the prefecture with strong medicine, and soon salesmen were traveling all over Japan to sell the famed medicine.

We then stopped by the Takamura Gyujin Memorial Art Museum,  named after Takamura Gyujin, a famous Toyama-born artist known for his ink drawings.  Our tour guide pointed out that Takamura was often inspired by “voluptuous” women who looked like his mother, so many of his drawings depict curvy women – quite different from the stick thin women that are shown so frequently in modern American and Japanese fashion magazines!

We were then off to Chokei-ji Temple, home of 500 statues of Rakan (according to Toyama’s Website, this means Buddha’s disciples who reached nirvana).  Here, it is said you can see your ancestor in the face of one of the statues.  I chose a happy but pensive-looking Rakan as my ancestor.  Despite getting a rather annoying spider bite on my forehead here, this was easily the highlight of my first day.  The view from the top of the hill overlooks an eerie graveyard, and looking up at the statues made me feel overwhelmed and serene at the same time.  I recommend taking your time to stroll by all the statues.  Each has a unique feature, and you can climb up some stairs to look down at all of the statues.  I could probably spend two hours here again on a nice day.

After visiting museums and the temple, it was time for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  We sat in a lovely room and the kind woman serving us tea showed us the correct way to turn the tea cup (two times clockwise, if my memory serves me correctly).  We also ate some yummy Japanese candy and signed the guest book.

With the afternoon approaching, we hopped on the bus again and left for the Unazuki Beer-kan in Kurobe.  They brew somewhat famous beer here (which you can find at the Uozu JR station as well as some 7-Elevens in Toyama-shi).  I’m not a huge beer or alcohol drinker, so I only tried the lightest one, which reminded me of Blue Moon.  There are three brews, ranging from light to dark, and I was told the darkest one tastes like Guinness.

After lunch, we rode the famous “Torokko train” through the Kurobe Gorge.  Toyama-ken was on the cusp of fall, and although it was too early to see all the changing colors of the leaves (koyou), the train ride was still gorgeous.  I recommend sitting on the right side of the train  when you board because some of my views on the left side were obscured by concrete.  Afterwards, we tried a traditional footbath (which I declined only because I didn’t want to get my feet wet), and then took a small hike down to Sarutobikyo Valley (or Keiunkyo Valley), an area where the river is so narrow that legend says monkeys jump across it.  I was really struck by how crystal blue the river water is here.  My tour guide told me it’s because the water comes from the melting snow running down the mountains.


We headed back to Toyama in the late afternoon and ate at a traditional Japanese izakaya (pub or bar).  With full stomachs, we all went to sing karaoke in Toyama.  I sang a few songs poorly (Weezer! Lisa Loeb! The Strokes! Franz Ferdinand!) and requested “Sakura,” a beautiful Japanese love song introduced to me by a friend.  We stayed at the Toyama Chitetsu Hotel, a Japanese business hotel located footsteps from the Toyama JR station.


Must See: Chokei-ji Temple.  From the JR Toyama Station, take the bus headed for Shin Sakuradani. Get off at Anyobo (about a 10-minute ride) and walk about 10 minutes. (Directions courtesy of this Website).

Travel Tip One: From the bus side stop of the CiC building near the Toyama JR station, there is a free museum bus that visitors can take to tour various museums, including the Toyama Museum of Modern Art.  Look at a map here.

Toyama prefecture, “Where is that?”

When most people think of Japan, the modern madness of Tokyo and Osaka probably come to mind first, followed by the serenity of Kyoto.  But Japan is a country of 127.2 million people, and those who aren’t living in a major city such as Tokyo or Osaka reside in mid-sized cities, suburbs or rural areas (the inaka).  I will admit that when I first found out I was placed in Namerikawa-shi, Toyama-ken, on the west coast of Japan, I had no idea where that was or what to expect.  I eagerly looked online and at every guidebook I could find to read about the area, but sadly, there isn’t much online and even less in guidebooks.  That’s a shame because there are some special parts of Toyama that very few foreigners and even Japanese people probably know about.  In September, I was lucky enough to participate in a free tour of Toyama prefecture.  This week, I will begin to share some stories in hopes that more people come visit Toyama. I will also include some tips about how to get around towns if you’re like me and don’t speak much Japanese.  Learn more about the trip by checking out the blogs of two fellow Assistant Language Teachers who were on the trip with me – Cynthia and Xue.  The Toyama Perfecture Government’s Website also has some good information on Toyama in English here.