Snow Day in Chiba

On the Monday following winter break, Justin and I reluctantly dragged ourselves out of bed to go to work. It was agony leaving our nice warm bed for the cold, dreary commute to school. My eyes felt like they were weighted with lead, and I was so tired. But, I was comforted by the thought that though I was tired, all the other teachers would no doubt be tired and would be sitting at their desks in the first year teacher's room, reading the newspaper or preparing for classes. The bus was not as full as usual, but I didn't pay much attention to that, as I was more concerned with keeping myself conscious.

I got off the bus at the Isobe High School bus stop, as always, and made the short walk to school in the crisp, cool, morning air. As I turned into the school parking lot, I noticed that there were only one or two cars there. It was completely silent, and there were no teachers pulling into the parking lot, no students bicycling by or chattering with their friends as they walked to school. Was there some disaster, I wondered? Had something happened? Were our clocks set correctly?

I walked into the school and changed into my indoor shoes. (I wear cream high-heeled sandals that I bought in the summer. I have to be careful to wear matching socks, because the toes are open.) Two secretaries sat in the office, and looked up inquisitively when they saw me. The silence in the building was very alarming- where were the sounds of kids practicing their band instruments? Where was the sound of teachers and administrative people scurrying by?

I walked up the stairs, feeling completely out of place. It didn't seem like the same school. I made the long walk down the (frigid) hallway- at least that was normal. However, when I got to the first year teacher's room- the door was locked! I was horrified. Where were my co-workers? Had they all been abducted? Was this some kind of twilight zone? It was unthinkable that I could have beaten them to school, or that they were all late.

I crept down to the school office, and stood outside the window, shifting from side to side and feeling really foolish. Finally the young male clerk came out and made noises about the room being locked… did I need it to be unlocked? Yes, I said, nodding, but what I really wanted was answers. Why was no one else here? I didn't know how to ask, so I said nothing and followed him back to the room. He opened it up, and looked at me inquisitively, probably wondering what on earth I was doing there but too polite to ask, before going back to the office.

I went in and sat at my desk. It was very quiet. I sent Justin a message on my cell phone. "No one is here. It's all very strange here" I typed. I got up and decided to find the third year teachers room. Perhaps someone there could tell me what was going on. Their door was locked, but I heard voices coming from an office. People! Maybe someone I knew was there. I lurked around, pacing down the hallway, until someone came out, unfortunately a stranger. Undoubtedly surprised to see the assistant language teacher lurking outside, he made noises generally indicating, "Hello, what are you doing here?" except more politely. "Can I help you in some way?" He walked down with me to the first year teacher's office (initially he suspected it might be locked, but on finding it unlocked, he turned on the heater for me. I must have looked very confused.)

At this point, I had a terrible feeling that we might have been mistaken about the day that school began. Perhaps I had taken Monday as a vacation day and just didn't realize it? The only way to know would be to look at my school log in the vice principal's room. In awkward Japanese, I managed to make it clear to my strange benefactor that I wanted to see my vacation papers in the vice principal's room, and he hastened to unlock the door for me. I opened the log and found to my horror that indeed, this was a vacation day.

To make sure, I asked my new friend- "so this means that today is vacation?" "Yes," he said. Feeling utterly idiotic, I said, "so… should I go home?" "yes," he said, "I think you can go home." "Ahhhh… thank you very much," I said, wishing I could crawl beneath the desk and die of embarrassment. This will be a great story for the teacher's meeting. The day the ALT came to school on the wrong day… a good anecdote for cocktail parties too. Those crazy foreigners…

At that point, my darling husband called me, and he told me that his school was deserted too, and while it would be perfectly ok with them that he stayed, did I want to meet at Starbucks in Chiba? "Yes!" I said, feeling the need to lick my wounds and heal my wounded pride with a nice gingerbread latte. I sat in the Starbucks waiting for him to arrive, looking around and marveling at how very quiet it was during the working week. Only a few random people were there, quietly reading and sipping coffee. Everyone else was at work… It was like joining a silent club with people free of a dreary weekday schedule.

Justin arrived and we sat there, sipping our drinks and giggling over our unexpected vacation. "It's a snow day!" I cried happily. "Yes," agreed Justin, "without the snow." We decided such a happy surprise should not be wasted at home, but rather that we ought to go on an adventure. Unfortunately the tourist information center informed us that all the museums were closed, but they showed us a brochure of a cable car ride that went up a mountain low on the west coast of Chiba Prefecture, and we decided to go on a prefectural adventure. Why not? We were unexpectedly free, it was a beautiful sunny day (with no snow in sight) and such an opportunity should not be wasted. We got on the train and were off to explore!

Two hours and lots of beautiful ocean scenery later, we got off the train at a quaint little station (alarmingly quaint) and, following the signs, found ourselves with entirely too many options. I was starving, so first we opted for some food at a revolving conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Large, extremely fresh fish swam energetically in large aquariums at the door, and the conveyor belt seating was packed. We waited for our turn, and then followed the waitress to our seat. The local seafood enthusiasts were surprised to see gaijin (foreigners) in their midst but were not unfriendly. We ate some reasonably good fresh sushi to recharge us and then began a hike to our mountain cablecar. We passed an interesting local shop with thousands of sardines laid out to dry in the sun. The very air was charged with the smell and feel of the ocean. I'd missed it.

We got to the cable car attraction and were skeptical- loud amusement park music was playing and old postcards were hung and flashing arcade games were flashing- it felt very old and very deserted. However, we'd come this far, so we bought tickets and waited for the next ride. Happily other people wandered in to line up for the attraction, so it didn't seem as though it was famous for being a death trap (yet). We got on the cable car and I tried not to notice it swinging in the air, suspended only by a slim metal cord. The posts were the worst- as the cable car jerkily moved over them, I was convinced the car would fall off at any moment.

We got off the death trap and found ourselves in a carefully constructed, cement and metal grating covered, lookout point. The sea air had caused the metal to rust, and the cement to crack, but the view from the mountain was spectacular. Justin immediately began envisioning himself paragliding off the top… And I just enjoyed gazing out to sea, trying to make myself believe we were really on an island of Japan. After traipsing about, contemplating a long hike to hidden Buddha statues, and finally deciding to just go back down, we rode the cable car back.

We walked towards the ferry and enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere of this quite seaside village- touched ever so slightly with tourism. We went into the ferry station and found all kinds of omiyage food gifts laid out in small shops inside. Chiba prefecture is famous for its peanuts, so of course, every kind of peanut available was laid out and packaged for gift giving. I tried some- they were really good! We bought our tickets and wandered around outside a little, lifting our faces into the wind and taking a few pictures.

We got on the ferry and wandered from place to place, trying to find the perfect view. Unfortunately, the bow was blocked off from passengers, but we enjoyed peering out over the sea and feeling the waves rocking underneath us. It made both of us want to go on a cruise again, rather badly. At last we went inside out of the cold wind and sat inside with the other passengers, mostly older people. Some were chain smoking, others were tucking enthusiastically into preserved fishy bento box lunches. After our ferry dropped us off at the new shore, we wandered out into the world to find a bus that would take us back to the train station.

After some effort, we found a bus, walked, and then found ourselves on the train back home. Unfortunately, all our wandering wasn't cheap- it cost us 1700 yen each to get back home! That's Japan for you though- exploring can have unexpected rewards, but if you wander too far, it'll cost you. We were happy with our adventure though… The sunny day and brisk sea air had somehow scrubbed off our weariness, and left us feeling refreshed and ready to face Japanese High School life.


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