Being my own interface of late, I forget that people like to talk. . Many years ago I travelled through the States, and I enjoyed it a lot. I was coming from Japan, though, and I wasn't used to people singling me out to converse with, just casually, at the bus stop, in the supermarket, out and about. In the States I wasn't obviously different or scary, see, so I was fair game for all manner of conversation or conversion. It was in Utah that I first saw a kneeling bus, and thought how apt. Though of course, since I have seen many of those types of buses which can tip towards the kerb for the convenience of those in wheelchairs, or those pushing prams.
When it is apparent that you are travelling, too, maybe you are fair game. When you are going to very deliberate tourist spots where everyone, whether foreign or Japanese, is obviously a tourist, it is not unusual for strangers to strike up conversations. Likewise if you are sharing a room in a hostel. However, if you are on a local train, even though that local train is taking two or three hours to get to its destination, it isn't as common and can be uncomfortable.
The first was a woman on a local train, and I think she was slightly mad, but seeking her truth. There is an expression in Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. This expression is similar to the English one of a round peg not fitting into a square hole. I greatly appreciate the smooth running of day to day life in this country that seems to be one of the side-benefits of living in a country that views itself as a monoculture, but it does come at a price. Conformity at all costs is often how it is achieved and those who are different, in whichever way, will have a harder time of it. I am a favoured-different-foreigner, and as such, am not required to follow paths laid down as rigorously as the locals. And if that is not the case, I can always plead ignorance, and generally get away with it due to my favoured-different-foreigner status. Many other foreigners, particularly the Koreans and Chinese, are more confined in the ways they are expected to act, and in the lenience granted them.
This woman mostly spoke in Japanese. I think she was about my age (not too young), and she had travelled to Alice Springs and Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia to find the truth out about the Aboriginal people who lived there. They were her words. I think she was going to Hokkaido to maybe seek out the Ainu. I'm not sure. She had come from Osaka. Hokkaido is quite far north. Now, Japan is not a huge country, but big enough, and it would probably take a full 24 hours travel, if not more to get to Hokkaido from Osaka using local trains. Do-able, but not really comfortable, and if you are on a short break, as many Japanese are, not necessarily recommended. I was on my final leg to my night's accommodation in Iizawa onsen (well, one more train trip to go), but she sure had some travel to go before she reached Hokkaido. She didn't have much money, so she was camping and buying food from the convenience stores to sustain her. She had her tent with her, and a huge backpack. She said that she couldn't breathe in Osaka. I hope she found a little bit of peace in the North. I hope she got there.
The river through Iizawa. My hotel backed onto this.
The woman at the Onsen was a 1950s, red-lipsticked, blue-eyeshadowed, mascara-clad throwback. She'd travelled through the states for two weeks when she was younger, and her tourist English was excellent. The onsen-hotel itself, Shin-Matsuba, was all faded glam. The reek of cigarettes was in everything. Yet, it opened up onto that river and it must have been very beautiful and sophisticated in its heyday. As were its guests, no doubt, sitting by the open windows, looking out at the water, drawing on their cigarettes deliberately placed in long holders.
The owner plied me with a map as I explored this little town I hadn't heard of. I passed its famous local onsen baths, but the place I stayed also drew its water from this hot spring. Before the rain, I walked through quiet and deserted temples and shrines (it was night), one with a huge waraji (straw sandal) tied to a tree. The place was a holiday town a little beyond its prime. Yet people still holidayed there. The rains came. We weren't out of rainy season yet, though I foolishly thought we might have been. I found the convenience store at the end of my wanders, and bought an umbrella to protect my sodden clothing and skin from the dry skies above. How suddenly it started, the woman at the onsen-hotel said, as I returned.
My Japanese will probably not improve within the limited time I am here, but I do wish that I hadn't been so lazy over the last few years and had brushed up on my reading skills. They definitely improved while travelling, but there was so much information in these little towns pointing to corners of history that the locals and those interested in such things know. Maybe the Dog that sat on the tuckerbox 5 miles from Gundagai is not of interest to anyone but the locals, and those who are curious about Australian songs and folklore, but to be able to read the signs and figure out why a canine statue is plonked out there in the middle of nowhere inbetween Canberra and, I guess, Gundagai, is a luxury I take for granted.
Chris was enjoying himself and quite the traveller. He'd spent some time in Australia during his gap year, an expression and pastime that seems to have become common vernacular, and just common, I guess. He was doing well for himself. I would have guessed him at late twenties, but as I am a little sensitive about my age, or people's reaction to it, I didn't ask. His Newcastle company dealt with the paints that boats slathered their hulls and other parts with, and these paint-slatherers had had a conference in Kobe. I 'helped' him out while we both took a hydrofoil to Matsushima, in that I kind of made myself understood, and I kind of understood what the information booth people said back to me. We chatted on the ferry on the way over, but it was apparent that we wouldn't be hanging out. The newly arrived find everything so different, not necessarily positively so. The ones who have been there a bit longer either have to be reminded of the differences, or find the observations tedious, feel that it is not necessary, perhaps, to be reminded of it. Though it is just a passing observation. Usually. Still. I think I hadn't spoken English intensively for a few weeks, and he hadn't for most of his holiday, which meant, considering he was only staying a few weeks, probably put us on about the same level of rustiness with our communication skills. He'd climbed Fuji-san at night, and also visited Nikko, and swathes of Kyoto. So he'd done well for himself.
Bab from Hawai'i, or somewhere, needed to pop over and say hi to us as well, because she hadn't spoken English for so long, or maybe English to a native speaker, as she said she was with, or visiting family, and needed to go back to them. I did invite her to join us, because it's good for me to talk to people, but it's a bit of a barrage, this, being someone singled out, like travelling through the states again. Even though Chris was English. Though it was pleasant enough, Chris and I parted ways when we arrived in Matsushima. I hope he managed to see the Tanabata festival in Sendai that I steered him towards.
Matsushima is considered one of the three most beautiful views of Japan. I can never remember the other two, though I have seen one. You can google it. It will be there. It's a beautiful area, though, naturally enough, overrun with tourists. I went a little out of season, though, so it wasn't too bad. My favourite places would be the island of Oshima, or Ojima, which was where many Buddhist monks went to practice and retreat.
The next would be Entsuji, a small temple which was next to the larger temple area of Zuiganji, which, unfortunately, I discovered just in its last forty minutes of opening. Not to worry. I actually visited it on my second day of visiting Matsushima, so this entry is not necessarily in chronological order. The monk at the temple did inform me of the matsuri, or festival, however that was going to occur that night. The candles were set up along the sides of the rode to be lit. I assume their flames would either chase away, or invite in, the demons and ghosts of ancestors that come out to play during the time of Obon that the festival was ushering in. On the night of the festival a famous koto player was going to perform at the larger temple.
When you are a thousand miles away from home, why is an hour and half a long time, or closer to two, and an annoyance with crowds important? Well, it just gets to be that way. The hostel you will read about below seemed to close it's baths at 9.30 (I was wrong) and Japanese festivals, though exciting, enthralling and beautiful, are crowded. So I missed out on one that seemed to be more ethereal and pleasing to the eye than the larger, more famous, Sendai Tanabata gig (the one I had sent Chris too), but oh well, there is always next lifetime. Perhaps.
Outside of Matsushima, a couple of stations down the line, is a small town, Nobiru. It is where people come to swim. You know you've hit a small town. The convenience stores connected to the station sell vegetables and little else, and in fact, it seems that they may be the supermarket for the whole area. It seems that this area, it is quite close to the major centre of Sendai, has deliberately been kept beautiful, and it is incredibly beautiful, as so much of Japan is not. I stayed at the small youth hostel there, which was clean and comfortable. The first night I had the 8 bunk bed room to myself. It was nice to go outside and look at the stars, smell the pine. The next day I hired a bicycle and rode around the coast of Miyatojima, or Miyato Island. If you are from Australia, imagine a calmer Esperance. Or maybe some of the coves off Ko-PiPi in Thailand. The beaches I visited were Tsukihama, Ohhama, and I cannot remember how to read the third one. The water was calm, the sand white, and the surrounding islands and outcrops made it seem tropical and serene. These areas are away from the main Nobiru beach which has black sand and which is inundated with summer revellers. Though, as with any country kind of town, the locals (many who were maybe, actually, holidaymakers) give you a bit of an upwards/downwards glance, but it is quite a famous part of Japan, so a few of us gaijin must wander in now and then.
Of course, one of the three most beautiful views of Japan has its own four beautiful views. I think I picked the one that was called the gorgeous view. The others being Beautiful view (Tomiyama), Dynamic view (Tamozan), and Mysterious view (Ogidani). I did wonder which two words in Japanese would be used to differentiate between gorgeous and beautiful. The gorgeous view is called Otakamori, big,tall,forest (view?). The gentle 700 metres you had to climb to get there was worth it. Japan is a mountainous country, so I guess 700 metres is gentle in their mind. Well, it's certainly not Mt. Fuji, anyway.
Riding back home, the lotus were open and the light was just perfect. It seems it would be an easy place to live, not too far from Sendai, and a pocket of beauty, though the lack of amenities might become tiring.
Miki shared the hostel with me the second night. I had gone to explore Matsushima some more (the beaches I had visited earlier in the day were in Otsumatsushima: the gateway to Matsushima). She was very interesting. Again, we mostly spoke Japanese, but her English was excellent. She had spent quite a lot of time in Canada, and she too was travelling around on the seishun ju-hachi kippu, as had been the first woman on the train. This is a fabulous ticket that is available at holiday times in Japan. For about one hundred Australian dollars, it gives you 5 days worth of non-consecutive travel (if you so wish) all over the country. The only hitch it that you need to take the local trains, which are slow.
We shared information about some of the places we had gone to, and why we chose to not visit one or the other (buses are not included in the price of the ticket, so my trip to Bandai -- detailed below -- was not an option for her). It was fun and exciting to meet all these people, Japanese and foreign, who were taking advantage of this ticket that had originally been designed with 18 year old students in mind. On the trains, I saw pensioners, families, older couples, young kids, everyone using it.
Miki had gone to the festival that I had decided I didn't want to wait around for. She arrived late. There was a group of karate students, boys and girls, staying at the hostel, and it seemed that I avoided the times that they were having a bath, which was good, though I seemed to be always running up against full washers and driers (or the driers were full of dried clothes...grrr). The baths at the hostel were very big and very clean. I think I have written before about the fabulous sento and onsen in Japan, and the communal way of washing, and the sheer luxury of the big bath to soak in (you must be clean before you do this). When you consider how hot and humid Japan is in summer, and that I had a flannel stuffed down my back and front in the hope of soaking up some of the guaranteed sweat most days, you can imagine how appreciated these facilities were. So, after her bath, Miki came back, we chatted more.
She lived in Tokyo, but was from Osaka, and she enjoyed both. She was very interested in films. In fact, it was her passion and maybe she'd be making them in the future. I hoped so. She certainly seemed like a gutsy, independent lady. She'd recently scored work on a foreign film festival that was starting up in Tokyo, and was going home on Sunday to enjoy a barbeque with friends. We traded numbers, and she likes sake, for which Niigata is famous, so, who knows, maybe I will see her this way some day.
Her time was definitely limited, but she was taking in Otakamori the next day, and I told her how to get there and lent her my map. She felt she didn't have time to visit one of the close-by beaches as she had to catch a train in Sendai at about 8am, which was a shame, but the following day she said that she was satisfied in that she had achieved that which she set out to do.
Despite the guidebook saying that there were no restaurants really near Nobiru, or perhaps it said they all closed at 9, I found a sweet little place just around the corner. True, though, it closed at 7pm. Again, they must have got enough foreign tourists from the youth hostel, as they had an English menu. I had their teishoku (lunch set) which included a whole fried fish, or grilled, not with batter, and with eyes. That kind of thing doesn't bother me. A fish is a fish, and maybe if our meat and things looked a bit more like the animals they came from, we might be a bit more contemplative about what we ingested. Anyway, it was delicious, fresh and a bargain. That whole area is known for its seafood, and I will attest, except for maybe the massive seared scallop I had on a stick, that it is marvellous. I love scallops, but they are often huge in Japan, and have just a little too much roe (which leaves a mushy, tinny taste) on them for me to fully appreciate them.
Anyway, I had revisited the restaurant the night before and ordered their seafood ramen. Getting to this restaurant before closing was actually one of my reasons for not staying at the matsuri in Matsushima. The ramen was packed with wriggly and crawly things from the ocean (not that they were wriggling and crawling at the time, though this is a feature of some Japanese cuisine), including two types of crab. There was a very small one that we probably wouldn't eat in Australia. The owner showed me how to eat it, cracked it's head open and offered me either its body or brains to eat, mixed with the broth. You ate this from the shell itself, or slurped it up. Well, you gotta do what you gotta do, though it probably wouldn't have been my delicacy of choice. It tasted neither good nor bad, but maybe it was a bit too seafoody, even for my tastes.
The following day I went to Kinkazan which is quite a journey and famous for its shrine, which is on an island which is about as far away from a certain point as it can be. The journey to the train station was 40 minutes, to the ferry an hour and a half, and to the island ( Kinkazan ) a further 20 minutes or so. The island has deer and monkeys, too, and I was looking forward to climbing the mountain, and hiking about.
I should have booked into the ryokan (traditional Japanese accommodation) on the island, but retrospective knowledge is a great thing. There was a panic when I thought I'd lost my purse, then much relief when I found it (placed next to the bus stop as I was checking something out). Disappointing was that I could only spend an hour on the island, as I had really wanted to do a lot of hiking. As it wasn't peak tourist season yet, the ferries weren't running in the afternoon, and the one I was taking back would be the last one. That gave me enough time to see a few deer, climb up to the shrine, climb back from the shrine and catch the ferry home. Oh well. It was beautiful and the bus ride, too, was scenic. Additionally as I had to wait for more than an hour for a return bus, I was able to find a deserted, overgrown shrine in Ayukawa (the departure point for Kinkazan), one of the lanterns of which is shown below.
The woman I met at the hostel that night was going to stay in a ryokan at Kinkazan the following night. I'd had to change rooms to one with four beds as the cheaper rooms were booked. I didn't mind. I had pestered the owner, asking him and asking him if he had an extra bed, as the temple I had wanted to stay at further north was not open (due to earthquakes earlier in the year). He said yes, but I had to pay more. Not much more, and there were three booked into the room, but only one other (than me) turned up. A gorgeous Canadian from Jamaican and Guyanan roots. She was fired up. She, like Miki, took the bicycle out to Otakamori, and rode around some, as did I, taking in the sunset and Tsukishima (Moon beach), and she then joined me at the little ramen- cum-yakitori/yakiniku shop for dinner. She'd been living in Tokyo for a while, and was actively pursuing study of the language. It showed, though she was in the beginning stages. She sang in a jazz band and wrote songs. And she taught English, of course. She was positive, wonderful and breezy. I only found out about her background due to me recommending the fish to her but warning her that it had eyes. Psssh, not to worry, she said.
She was keen on watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics and she'd been to Matsushima earlier where the garu girls had clustered around her as she ate an oyster. She was travelling on the seishun juhachi kippu, also, and was hanging out for her pay cheque. The opening ceremony was pretty amazing, though the screen we watched it on was pretty small, and I wouldn't have watched it at all if she hadn't been interested, and definitely not in the 8 bed room as there was no tv. I had to head out at 5 or 6 in the morning. I can't remember. I tried not to wake her, but it's hard when you are sharing. She said 'bye', rolled over, and went back to sleep.
I had been going to stay at Ura-bandai, a beautiful area which is part of Aizubandai. There are 5 coloured swamps in the area, though they look like naturally brightly lit lakes to me. On my way to Sendai, I had stopped off there and hiked through the humid rain-filled forests (nicely marked with clear, though wet paths). Bought a few flannels to sop up the sweat. My shirts were thin, as is important when it is humid, but I wasn't really keen on the sweat outlining just precisely where my breasts were. I already attract enough attention, thank you! When I'd hiked through the area, I'd booked into the youth hostel there for the Saturday (which was in four days time) as I wanted to do more hiking.
Incidentally, I met a German girl whose mother was Japanese. She was helping out at the hostel I had booked into, and it would have been interesting to get more of her story. On the way back through, though, the connections were all so perfect and saving me time, that I decided to come back home to Niigata. To what, I am not sure, but I did it anyway. Then I procrastinated and didn't head out to an amazing place called Dewasanzan, where apparently a Japanese 'mummy' lurks (a boasatsu [buddhist saint], in this case, a believer, monk, who has fasted to death. Not all boasatsu die this way, mind you). It is an esoteric part of Japan where Shinto and Buddhism overlap, and the asetic pilgrims converge... I have a few days before the semester starts and the cold weather sets in (it is further north, and gets very cold, apparently). I'll see how I do.
The swamps of Bandai Kogen, famous for their colours.
Postscript: I didn't want to lose these comments, but I had to redo this post as I couldn't edit under normal means, I'm not entirely sure why. Sorry if they are a bit jarring within the overall keeping and mood of the post being posted here.
Posted by lizardrinking at Friday, September 19, 2008
Hi LD. Excellent travel-writing. Makes my life seem very humdrum, ie: listening to Van Morrison circa 1974 at 4am on a wet Bangkok morning. Leaving for Jomtien in a minute. Dawn will be spectacular as usual. Happy travels!
20 September 2008 05:59
Hey anon, I know you and know your life is far from humdrum :) Using that same system you used, you can select any name, by choosing name/url it doesn't have to be linked to anything.
I'm back now, so the humdrum has set in and I'm fighting (not very hard) to throw off the apathy. Wish I was going down to Jomtien with you. Winter is a few months away, but *shudder*.